The Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, a 15-county quasi-governmental agency based in Rome, finds itself in a unique position as a re-
sult of what Executive Director William Steiner calls “the chaos in Washington.”
“I told our board when we presented the budget (for FY 12) this is based on current thinking, from this past year, but I may very well be back to you in October with a totally different budget,” Steiner said. “We’re a planning agency trying to do planning but we can’t seem to know what our budget is going to be month-to-month. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s extremely challenging.”
Even when the agency knows money is available, the NWGRC is having a tough time finding takers because of financial challenges facing communities across Northwest Georgia.
Even grants require money
During the city of Rome’s Community Development committee session Wednesday, NWGRC planner David Howerin made a pitch to the city for participation in a Sustainable Communities planning grant that could range from $400,000 to $5 million.
The grant would require a 20 percent local match, which prompted city officials to shy away from the grant because of difficulties finding the 20 percent match.
“If our share of the grant was $200,000, then we’d be responsible for $40,000,” said Rome City Manager John Bennett. “That’s one employee.”
Steiner said the problem with the Sustainable Communities initiative is that you’ve got three lead federal agencies — Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Steiner said that on the one hand the agencies are asking communities to put up a match, but on the other hand there are not any guarantees from this Congress that there will be any money to implement whatever is planned — a classic Catch-22.
“Right now, I have to read tea leaves,” Steiner said.
Changes are coming
He related a recent conversation with Georgia DOT planner Todd Long, who said he is anticipating a 25 percent cut in Federal Highway Administration funding.
“If they’re cutting roads and bridges — that’s the most basic form of infrastructure in this country — then what about all of this soft stuff.” Steiner said. “Planning, jobs training, aging services. That tells me something is going to happen. We’re on the verge of changes.”
The federal bureaucracy has become so large that it finds itself in an extremely difficult position of determining where cuts can be made without inflicting serious damage to jobs and the economy.
Steiner referred to a scenario in Jasper and Pickens counties as a classic example of how one grant from the government impacts jobs at several levels.
The city of Jasper was asking for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fund a water tank that was going to be located on the top of a mountain, but they had to do a flood analysis.
“Whatever happened to basic rational thinking ‘that’s not needed,’” Steiner said.
Programs coming out of Washington sometimes become mired in its accounting, legal and engineering bureaucracy, he noted.
“All these different professions have their associations in Washington, D.C., and they lobby for things that will generate additional work for their association,” said Steiner.
Steiner said he feels the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has been an important funding source for many projects across Northwest Georgia, will fair reasonably well when it comes to budget slashing because the Appalachian region is relatively conservative and key Republicans are able to appreciate the program.
Many of the federal grant programs are tied to job creation, but the paperwork bureaucracy skews those numbers to the point where it’s difficult to tell which money was responsible for hiring which employee.
“The Economic Development Administration funded the gas lines infrastructure into the Tallapoosa–Haralson County Industrial Park that Honda located at,” Steiner said. “Truth of the matter is Haralson County, Tallapoosa, the state, ARC, everybody had something to do with that, even Honda. How do you evaluate that?”
Steiner suggested if you added up all the jobs people claim credit for creating, the interstates ought to be full. “Another bureaucratic necessary reporting thing,” Steiner said.
While there is virtual unanimity that creating jobs is the key to growing the region and the country out of a fiscal malaise, the issue of how to create jobs remains very much unanswered.
Government — largely at the federal and state levels — while not directly creating jobs has developed purse strings to which all sorts of jobs are tied.
“We’ve lost a basic moral and ethical code in this country that every time somebody tries to cheat the system, a new rule or regulation comes up,” said Steiner. Those rules and regulations invariably have a job attached to them. It could be an environmental compliance officer or perhaps an accountant.
Answers to the dilemma are as varied as there are politicians arguing over how to deal with the federal debt.
Steiner suggests something like a 1 percent, virtually across the board, cut every year for 10 years.
“Does that hurt, yes, and every year it might hurt a little bit more. But you don’t do it all at one time,” said Steiner. “We need some rational thinking on how to do it in a way where people can plan for it and it doesn’t hit them all at one time.”
That would clearly make Steiner’s job as a regional planning chief much easier.