In a letter to the mayor’s office written last spring, a coalition of Providence non-profits, community members and local entrepreneurs presented their visions for transformative uses of stimulus funds. The coalition refers to Providence’s history as “the center of a pollution-based economy” wherein “all communities in our city have not equally shared the benefits of investment in jobs and economic development.” The letter, signed by interests spanning from religious leaders to environmental activists to independent contractors, thus urges the city to use stimulus money to “begin to lay the foundations of a more equitable and green economy.”
While members of that coalition have continued to express hope about the city’s approach to stimulus spending, a number of obstacles remain between the proposals local governments have made to community groups and their implementation. Karina Lutz, Director of Development and Advocacy at People’s Power and Light, helped coordinate community input into Providence’s grant proposals. She said that per federal stipulations regarding stimulus spending, “many issues of equity and financial sustainability haven’t even been dealt with in the city’s proposal,” forcing local organizations to act as “watchdogs,” as the City Council and state legislatures decide how money is spent.
ARRA’s stated goal is to get our nation’s economy ‘back up and running’ by promoting job preservation and economic growth—to a certain degree regardless of the industries that growth benefits. This focus on growth could turn out to be a barrier to building the financially and ecologically sustainable economy that has been the subject of much of the post-crisis discussion in Providence and around the state. The institutional structure of divvying and distributing funds may yet serve to preserve the economic and political structures as well as the social mindset with which we entered the financial crisis.
Although it is still early to determine what changes will be wrought by ARRA spending in Rhode Island, local organizations and officials have high hopes for stimulus funds. One example lies in the steps the city has already taken toward engaging the public on how stimulus money will be spent.
Amelia Rose, lead organizer for the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, who helped coordinate the meeting where the Coalition for an Equitable and Green Recovery for Providence delivered their letter, said, “The mayor’s office seems genuinely interested in the kinds of recommendations we presented to them.” Those recommendations included “Mak[ing] stimulus hiring reflect the demographic make-up of the city,” specifically committing to hiring 54 percent people of color, “Prioritiz[ing] the use of stimulus funds for job training for local residents,” and “Work[ing] through a stakeholder group open to interested community members and organizations to determine the most needed and effective approaches to job training funded through the stimulus.”
Rose said the mayor’s office “actively sought out local organizations,” including the Environmental Justice League, to develop what she called “a comprehensive committee of organizations representing low-income people and communities of color,” to weigh in on how to implement a developing series of green jobs trainings.
Rose said, “The city has shown commitment to prioritizing entry-level jobs in green industries, and also focused efforts on including the re-entry population (former inmates) in their visions.”
Less money, mo problems
Per order of the Energy and Conservation Block Grant’s requirements, the city plans to use much of the money it recently obtained to create a revolving loan fund for weatherizing homes. Local businesses and non-profits will be able to apply for a pool of loans that refills as recipients make payments. The program’s $1,759,300 (which makes up the bulk of its environmentally-focused stimulus funding), along with state-wide spending through the State Energy Program, seek to make homes, businesses and other buildings throughout the state more energy efficient. However, both Rose and Lutz noted that the stipulations of these programs have made enacting reforms in these early stages difficult.
And even given the intentions of locally elected officials, community groups fear that these funds may not lead to the development of long-term reforms. In a recent editorial, the New England Real Estate Journal described the dilemma as faced by the real estate industry which “had to deal with actual market conditions [once] the Historic tax-credit program was over.”
Rose echoed this concern, saying, “It’s going to take some work for local governments to be ready to provide the incentives that will support the types of programs we’re interested in enacting.” She went on to reference the creativity of programs like one in Portland, OR, where stimulus funds have been used to institute weatherization projects that loan agencies allow to pay for themselves through energy savings. In Kansas City, stimulus money has gone to develop comprehensive, environmentally-minded infrastructure projects in low-income communities.
At the state level, however, budget concerns, among other issues, have impeded even the deployment of stimulus funds, particularly those directed toward energy programs.
Referencing the July 24 resignation of Andrew Dzykewicz, the state’s energy commissioner, Lutz explained, “The state government is just getting back on its feet after a very difficult period. The state Energy Department was decimated—partly by policy-making by budget, and by poor leadership.” Consequently, Rose said, “at the state level, there’s been more filling in budget gaps rather than giving a jolt that would restructure the way energy programs operate.”
The state has focused its recovery efforts on preserving fundamental and traditional public services, rather than advancing an agenda of reform. In a revised report published on October 30, the governor’s office announced that stimulus spending through state channels has saved the most jobs in the education field, 560, followed by jobs in the prison industry, totaling 294.
What’s at stake in spending recovery money is more than making up for lost finances. Lutz said, “We want the jobs now, but we also want them to be good. We want the recovery to last.” Even in a time of crisis, haste isn’t the most effective strategy for rebuilding an economy, and fleeting bursts of cash do not necessarily have the capacity to sustain reform.
Lutz explained, “If we do it wrong, we won’t ever see this kind of money again, and it’ll begin a kind of downward spiral where we can no longer afford to make the investments in energy efficiency that we need to make. It’s a really critical time, and a misstep could really even set us back.”