Smyrna officials were surprised this month when they learned their city was on the federal government’s naughty list.
The city landed on that list for not filing a report about a $208,000 federal stimulus grant it was awarded in September. But wait, say Smyrna officials: We haven’t spent the money yet.
Thousands of other recipients of stimulus money also failed to file, say the feds — perhaps another sign of confusion in the government’s administration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The AJC has previously documented instances in which Georgia recipients overstated the number of jobs they created with stimulus funds because they were confused about how they were supposed to count the jobs.
The latest instance of confusion arises from the requirement that recipients of stimulus money file quarterly reports on what they’ve done with the money. The government is putting those reports on recovery.gov so the public can see where the taxpayer money is going.
City officials, however, believe they are not required to report until they submit a plan to spend the money, possibly on an alternative fuel source. Besides, the city has not spent one cent from the grant yet, said a city spokeswoman. Yet, the U.S. Energy Department says the government’s act of awarding the grant to Smyrna triggered the reporting requirement.
Smyrna was among thousands of recipients that failed to report on 4,359 stimulus grants, loans and contracts in October as required by the law, according to the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. The board published a list of these recipients — including Smyrna and many others in Georgia — on recovery.gov this month.
Federal officials hope that publishing the list will encourage people to get their reports in. Those missing reports are preventing the public from getting a complete picture of how taxpayer money from the $787 billion program is being spent and how many jobs it is creating or saving.
The law doesn’t include penalties for people who don’t file. But frustrated federal officials are considering several options. Among them: cutting off money to those who repeatedly fail to get their reports in.
Federal officials say some recipients simply missed deadlines. For many others, it’s a mystery why they haven’t reported anything. The government says it doesn’t know why they didn’t file. Many other recipients have been confused by the reporting requirements.
The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which operates recovery.gov, says it is working with federal agencies to improve the process before the next quarterly reports are due in January.
“We expected problems and have been developing technical and content changes to help improve the quality of recipient data and streamline the reporting process for the January reporting period,” said Earl Devaney, appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the board, in a prepared statement this month.
Turns out recipients aren’t the only ones who have been confused. The White House Office of Management and Budget told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month that the list of nonfilers included more than 4,300 recipients of federal stimulus funds. But that number actually represents stimulus contracts, grants and loans for which recipients did not file reports — and not the number of recipients — according to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. An OMB spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about the discrepancy.
After the AJC inquired about Smyrna’s grant this month, a U.S. Energy Department spokeswoman said her department would contact city officials and clarify the reporting requirements.
Smyrna was required to file its report after it was notified on Sept. 30 that it had been awarded a Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, said Jen Stutsman, a deputy press secretary for the Energy Department.
“All grantees that received funding on or before Sept. 30 were legally required to submit job creation and spending reports‚ even if there was no actual spending to report at the time,” Stutsman said.
Smyrna notified federal officials in October that it intends to accept the grant, said city spokeswoman Jennifer Bennett. But city officials believe they are not required to report to the federal government until after they have submitted a plan on how they intend to spend the money. An Energy Department official in Las Vegas told Smyrna that was the case as recently as Dec. 18, said Ken Suddreth, the city’s community development director.
“Quite honestly, we would prefer to submit a plan that we would be accountable to — rather than access funds and just report on a form,” Bennett said. “We are doing what we believe to be the responsible thing.”
Other Georgia agencies turned up on the list of nonfilers. Among them:
Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence
The U.S. Justice Department awarded the coalition a $78,125 grant in September. Coalition officials said they did not believe they were required to report since they had not received any of the money yet. They plan to spend it on half of their communications coordinator’s salary and supplies and computer upgrades in their Decatur office. After the AJC called the coalition, an official there contacted the Justice Department for guidance.
University of Georgia Research Foundation
A $52,202 contract was awarded to the foundation to evaluate sediment downstream from dams on the Savannah River. That research will be used to consider the feasibility of using a “pulsed release of water” to clean the sediment and expand fish spawning areas.
The university did not file a report because it did not accept the award until it signed a purchase order with the Corps on Oct. 28, after the federal reporting deadline had passed, said Regina Smith, UGA’s associate vice president for research. An official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which awarded UGA the contract, said the corps regarded the contract as having been awarded before that deadline, adding: “This appears to be a timing and perception issue as to when the contract was fully awarded. Reporting will catch up before the next deadline.”
Georgia Community Action Association
The Forest Park agency had technical trouble filing its report, said executive director Lorraine Daniels. By the time the association had resolved the problem, the government’s deadline for reporting had passed, Daniels said.
The association has been awarded an $80,000 stimulus grant partly to help community action agencies across the state improve their financial and grant reporting systems and the ways they track the needs of the people they serve. These agencies provide Head Start preschool programs and other services.
Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority
The authority, which owns and operates the Cobb Galleria Centre, failed to file a report on a $25,617 federal contract it has received to host a meeting in June about homelessness prevention and housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development paid the authority for meeting space rental fees and food.
The authority’s finance director blamed the missing report on an oversight.
“We were not aware that the meeting HUD contracted at the Cobb Galleria Centre was a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” Rob Turner, the authority’s finance director, wrote in an e-mail to the AJC. “As soon as we were made aware of this, we immediately started the process of filing the report.”
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