STIMULUS: Where is the money going?

In what is literally a shovel-ready project, Marquis Stratton helps build new medians in a parking lot at the Charleston Air Force Base bowling center Friday as part of improvements funded with federal stimulus money.

Stimulus money is everywhere, yet it's so hard to see.

That's because most funding that South Carolina and other states have received from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, about 75 percent of it, has been used to maintain existing services such as Medicaid and education.

It would be easier to notice bridges being rebuilt and roads being paved, but most of the job-creating infrastructure work funded by the stimulus plan hasn't started.

There are exceptions locally, such as the roughly $3 million spent by the Charleston Housing Authority on roofing, painting and repair work this summer and $7 million in stimulus-funded repairs under way at the Charleston Air Force Base.

Meanwhile, the federal spending and tax relief designed to help revive the economy has trickled into every corner of the Lowcountry in other ways, financially touching the lives of just about everyone.

Money in your pocket

One of the first things the stimulus plan did was to put money directly into people's pockets. Here's how:

--An extra $25 a week in every South Carolina unemployment check since mid-February.

--A tax credit of up to $400 for working adults ($800 for working couples) that has boosted most paychecks through reduced tax withholding.

--An extra $250 check for everyone who receives Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, railroad retirement or veterans benefits.

--There also are new tax credits for college costs, an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, tax credits of up to $1,500 for homeowners who make energy efficiency improvements, Alternative Minimum Tax relief and enhanced Earned Income Tax Credits for low-wage workers with children.

In Mount Pleasant, 68-year-old Jayne Powell received an extra $250 Social Security payment this year, as did her 94-year-old father.

"It was nice to have if someone wants to hand you $250, but I'm not a fan of this administration," Powell said. "I'm sure it was probably a godsend to some people, but to me it was just straw in wind.

"You can only get in deeper when you keep giving away money to jump-start something."

Indeed, the stimulus plan has faced criticism from many angles.

Some economists and critics from the political realm have argued the $787 billion package championed by the Obama administration was too small and would be spent too slowly to stimulate the economy. Others have said the stimulus spending is too expensive and fear that adding to the nation's considerable debt will have dire consequences.

On Monday, officials from China, the largest holder of U.S. debt, expressed concern about the federal deficit.

"We are concerned about the security of our financial assets," China's assistant finance minister, Zhu Guangyao, was quoted telling reporters in a story by The New York Times.

Obama administration officials assured them that the deficit would be brought under control once the danger of recession has passed.

Federal surveys have found that much of the tax relief has gone into bank accounts instead of adding to consumer spending, as people frightened by the effects of the recession have boosted the national savings rate.

At the same time, there's some consensus that incentives such as the $8,000 tax credit for homebuyers has helped revive the moribund housing market.

"We're definitely pulling buyers in on that," said Ralph Wetherell, president of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. "The neat thing about that $8,000 is that it typically comes after the closing, which means they will probably be spending it in the local economy.

"They're buying lawn mowers and drapes and furniture."

Slow spending process

Meanwhile, where are all the job-creating road and bridge projects that were touted when the stimulus plan was approved in February?

Invisible to most people outside government, huge chunks of money for specific programs and projects have been moving through the federal and state bureaucracies like a pig being digested by a snake.

The road construction, building projects, environmental cleanup work and other initiatives all require the same review processes as they would have without stimulus cash, but the money is on the way. For example, there's $14.6 million approved and waiting to complete the Berlin G. Myers Parkway in Summerville, but the project can't begin until the Army Corps of Engineers signs off on the plan.

Jeffrey Burns, a senior planner at the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, said the goal is to put the road project out for bid later this year.

"The project has been on our regional priority list for a number of years," he said. "Now it can happen."

Statewide, there's $463 million in stimulus funding for transportation improvements, designated for specific projects.

In another example of spending working its way through the pipeline, schools, colleges and state agencies in South Carolina have been allocated $40 million to make energy-saving improvements. Little of the money has been put to work because applications detailing how the money will be spent must be filled out and reviewed by the state.

The first of those energy awards was approved three weeks ago, giving Florence School District 5 nearly $72,000 in grants and loans to buy new heating and air-conditioning systems. The funding is meant for projects that eventually will pay for themselves through energy cost savings.

At the federal and state levels, the government has been walking a tightrope between trying to put money on the street quickly and trying to maintain adequate reviews and oversight. There are mandates for "shovel-ready" projects and deadlines for spending or losing the funding, but there still are applications to fill out and permits to be approved.

Coming to S.C.

The largest single stimulus-funded initiative so far in South Carolina is a $1.6 billion project to decommission nuclear reactors and perform environmental cleanup at the Savannah River Site, which will create an initial 2,200 jobs and prevent an estimated 800 jobs from being eliminated.

In economically depressed towns such as Allendale, which had a 22 percent unemployment rate in June, overflow crowds have turned out at job fairs hoping for work cleaning up contaminated soil.

"If we can get 300 jobs out of these 3,000, that will be enough to drop our jobless rate. We need it," Allendale Mayor Ronnie Jackson said when a job fair was held there in June.

There's no firm number on how much money will come to South Carolina because a large portion of stimulus funding is open to competitive grants. Charleston, for example, is seeking a $130 million grant for long-awaiting drainage improvements downtown.

The federal stimulus-tracking Web site states that nearly $4.6 billion in funding for South Carolina has been announced so far by federal agencies, while less than half a billion has been spent.

Lots of the unspent money will go to people who are being hired for projects such as the Savannah River Site cleanup.

Last week, $20 million in stimulus funds was approved for 45 South Carolina police departments, which will pay the salaries of 139 newly hired police officers for three years. Charleston will hire 19 and North Charleston, 15.

"Every resident benefits from this," said North Charleston Police Chief John Zumalt.

In Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, $4.7 million in stimulus money paid for a summer job training program for teens and young adults and retraining programs for laid-off workers in fields such as welding and nursing.

"We just graduated a welding class, and we had a number of employers interviewing those folks," said Paul Connerty, executive director of the Trident Workforce Investment Board.

At this point, Washington is kicking out about $4 billion every week in stimulus money. Too slowly for some critics, too quickly for others, and the unemployment rate has continued to climb nonetheless. The question no one can answer is: What would have happened to the economy without it?

Photo Caption: Stimulus money is everywhere, yet it's so hard to see. That's because most funding that South Carolina and other states have received from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, about 75 percent of it, has been used to maintain existing services such as Medicaid and education.