For many, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka "the stimulus," is synonymous with egregious government waste and needless ballooning of the federal deficit.
Despite hundreds of billions spent, and the various economic theories related to its worth, most folks see no obvious impact from the stimulus in their daily lives. It is invisible.
I wish the stimulus were invisible to me. Instead, it appears to be closing in on me.
When I want to leave my home, the stimulus is in the way. When I snuggle up with a book, the stimulus is making a racket. The stimulus even shut off my water a few weeks ago — randomly — when I was sick and thirsty. Because of the stimulus, I had to march down to 7-Eleven in my sweatpants for bottled water.
And yet, I am thankful for the stimulus, which will likely prevent me from ever having another incident with a toilet as repulsive as I had back in 2004. More on that later.
The ARRA was passed two years ago as a way to boost the economy and grow jobs while addressing infrastructure needs across the nation. The bill included $288 billion in tax cuts; $224 billion for education, health care and entitlement programs; and $275 billion for federal contracts, loans and grants. That last category helped propagate those signs you see touting ARRA-funded construction with the tagline: "Putting America Back to Work."
In my own city of Manitou Springs, ARRA has pumped millions into a long-overdue project: overhauling the city's water and sewage system. Before the stimulus, no one really knew where all the pipes were.
"Basically when these things were installed, there were no records kept," explains acting city administrator Mike Leslie. "It was basically a social memory thing."
In other words, your neighbor Dan knows his sewage pipe runs under the cottonwood in his backyard because that's where the plumber guys dig it up every spring to unclog it. No kidding.
Next, many of Manitou's pipes are more than 80 years old, so they're prone to problems. Now, Manitou Public Works director Bruno Pothier is quick to point out that how a pipe was laid initially makes the biggest difference: Some well-laid pipes can last 150 years, while some of Manitou's newer pipes are in dire need of replacement. But whether old or poorly laid, many Manitou pipes were spent by the time this project got under way.
The third problem pertains to the difficulty of actually fixing messed-up pipes, a familiar problem to anyone who's gardened in Colorado.
Rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
Manitou Springs fared extremely well in the process to get ARRA money. In fact, Manitou was awarded more than $12 million — more than any other Colorado city was awarded for a water and wastewater project. That was a relief; the town had dished out $837,000 on engineering a project it couldn't afford on its own, to ensure it met ARRA's "shovel-ready" requirement.
Then, one day before all the contract-signing, a huge wrench came flying into the picture. An attorney uncovered part of Manitou's charter that no one had considered before.
"We had a situation with our charter that limits our borrowing ability to 5 percent of assessed value of property in the city," Leslie says.
The ARRA money included some grants, but much of it was a no-interest loan. Suddenly, Manitou couldn't assume all that debt. So it halved its goals and took what it could: $5.94 million, $3.1 million of which is a zero-interest loan to be paid back over 20 years. Manitou, which has its own water and sewer system, will use customer connection fees to repay the debt.
After the change, leaders shelved an idea to store more treated water and cut back on the amount of pipe to be replaced. But the new project was still projected to fix 23,000 feet of water pipes and 17,000 feet of sewage pipe.
After a competitive bidding process, Manitou hired Pueblo-based K.R. Swerdfeger Construction, Inc. for the project, to be completed by spring or early summer — which means I'll finally be able to leave my house without dodging orange cones.
However, the project won't achieve full projections.
Glass half full
Pothier thinks 16,000 feet of water pipe and 15,200 feet of sewage pipe will get laid. Difficulties finding pipes, and even greater troubles laying pipes around all those rocks, have delayed the work and added to its expense.
But Pothier isn't too disappointed, saying some pipes that weren't replaced actually weren't in bad shape. Most of the worst piping has been upgraded, and new gadgets will better control Manitou's water pressure.
The sewage situation is also looking better, though Pothier says, frankly, "If we could get another $2 million [for sewage], we would be glad to use it."
With around $300,000 a year dedicated to water and sewer projects, Manitou isn't likely to do all $12 million of work that it had hoped to any time soon. But nobody's that upset.
"On balance, we got a lot of aging infrastructure replaced and that ought to reduce our cost in the future, so I would say it was a success," Mayor Marc Snyder says.
Like most Manitoids, Snyder knows a few stories about pipes gone wrong — stories that should be less common now. He says Manitou puts aside about $8,000 every year to help people whose homes are damaged by sewage troubles. (The city isn't usually liable for that sort of thing, even if it's a problem with one of the main pipes that caused the flooding.)
The mayor says he encourages residents to spend $15 or $30 a year on extra homeowners insurance coverage for sewage leaks. It's worth it. He's heard of basements filling with sewage and swallowing antique furniture. Not to mention the drywall that needs to be replaced.
"Sewer lines get backed up," he says, "and when they do, it's obviously a very devastating experience for people to go through."
Truer words were never spoken. Back in 2004, living in an apartment in Manitou's historic district, I woke up to what had to be the best excuse I've ever had to call in to work.
Me: "Um, I can't come in. My toilet's exploding with raw sewage and I have to stand here and mop it up so it doesn't get on the living room carpet."
My boss: "Oh. OK. Oh. Oh."
It took the plumbing guys three days to find the pipe and fix it. No maps, remember?
In the meantime, I had to march down to the 7-Eleven every time I had to pee.