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Waiting for the green light

Chad Silverthorn (left) and Chris Nichols, both of H&H Solar Energy Services Inc., Madison, install solar panels on a new house in Dane on March 26.  Photo by Anna Ironside

Chad Silverthorn (left) and Chris Nichols, both of H&H Solar Energy Services Inc., Madison, install solar panels on a new house in Dane on March 26. Photo by Anna Ironside

Paul Snyder
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The confusion of documents strewn across the table in Dave Merritt’s City-County Building office mirrors his stimulus state of mind.

The Dane County director of public policy and program development is the point person for figuring out how the county will spend more than $2 million in federal stimulus money for sustainable projects. He has on his table a mix of papers — some pertaining to federal rules on stimulus spending, others dealing with a county resolution to create an energy task force and still others pertaining to sustainable projects financed by the county’s 2009 budget.

Yet even with all of this information, Merritt said he does not know what projects will get stimulus money, how many jobs will be created with it or how construction workers will benefit.

“We’ve not received any guidance yet from the U.S. Department of Energy,” he said. “I think, in order for this to be successful, we’re going to have to create green jobs as soon as possible and jobs that will get the most bang for the buck.

“But I can’t say what those will be. Everything’s still on the table at this point.”

Money cannot fix job shortage

It is a common theme throughout Wisconsin. Counties and municipalities last month trumpeted new jobs and energy-conservation projects when the federal government released about $37.2 million in stimulus money for Wisconsin through The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.

But none of the counties or municipalities detailed what projects would benefit from the money or how many new jobs would be created. Two counties and three cities will net more than $1 million, and eight counties and 18 cities are expecting packages ranging from $142,000 to $902,500.

The counties and cities have until June 25 to identify the projects that will use the money.

Chris Rozof, director of estimating for Butler-based Berghammer Construction Corp., did the math and said the stimulus money through the grant program will not spark a surge of jobs.

“Let’s just look at a baseline of $1 million,” he said. “Sixty percent of that figures the cost of labor, so that’s $600,000. You take the average labor rate at about $60 per hour after benefits are worked out, so then you have 10,000 man-hours.

“Divide that by 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year, and you’ve got five new jobs.”

First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship Training program in Racine trains people for green projects that could be eligible for the stimulus money, said Executive Director Olatoye Baiyewu. But the number of apprentices waiting for work exceeds the likely number of jobs the money will create.

That, ultimately, could mean a reduction in the number of people First Choice trains, Baiyewu said.

“We have to be very conservative with money and training,” he said. “I’m not willing to train people for work that’s not available.”

Cautious stimulus spending

Yet the uncertainty in job creation and lack of direction in stimulus spending do not reduce the pressure to do something with the money. Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, said the money for sustainable projects will arrive in stages, which puts the onus on counties and cities to produce results with the first round of money if they want to get more.

“That leads us to be very cautious about putting money toward major projects that are going on,” he said. “If the project becomes delayed for some reason, that could end up shifting what we can use the second round for.

“There’s a higher degree of flux in all of this than people might anticipate, and we still don’t have as many details worked out as people might think.”

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna said he does not know how the city will spend its $689,800 share, but it is considering improving efficiency at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, upgrading streetlights and pursuing a project to capture methane to power city boilers.

Hanna said the city likely will debate what projects should go first because the program is set up through a federal grant program, and project choices could set the stage to get money beyond the stimulus package.

“We don’t know yet if there’s going to be ongoing funding,” he said, “or if this is a one-time thing.”

Hanna said he does not know how many construction jobs the city can create with the money. Furthermore, he said, builders’ stimulus expectations are fizzling.

“It’s not quite working the way we thought it would,” Hanna said.

But Jeff Tubbs, director of business development for Madison-based J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., said while $37.2 million for green jobs will not fix Wisconsin’s economic woes, the money cannot be dismissed, either.

“Anything that creates some jobs at this point,” he said, “is a step in the right direction.”
That, Merritt said, is why cities and counties must deal with the confusion, buckle down and find the best use for the stimulus money.

“(Former U.S. Congressman) Tip O’Neill once said, ‘All politics is local,’” Merritt said. “Well, I think the solution to the current economic subpar climate is also local. We’re going to be given the tools to provide some good-paying local jobs, and we have to put every effort into making them available.”

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