Local leaders await word on how much, if any, federal stimulus dollars will wind up in Gadsden County

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By Angye Morrison

While county leadership awaits word on whether Gadsden County will receive any federal stimulus package funding and, if so, how much, governors throughout the country have expressed optimism that the package President Barack Obama has signed will provide some much-needed relief for states.

State leaders are saying that the money will prevent further budget cuts and unemployment rate increases.

Governors gathered this week in Washington for the National Governor’s Association winter meeting, and the association’s chairman, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, told reporters on hand that the bill, although not perfect, will be a “tremendous help” to states.

Rendell also pledged, on behalf of his peers, that all state leaders will be “good stewards” of how the money is spent in their respective states. Obama has warned that he will “call out” anyone who wastes stimulus dollars on political projects.

"We understand our obligation and all of us, whether we supported the bill wholeheartedly or whether we had questions about the bill, all of us intend to be good stewards of the money that we spend with this bill," Rendell said. "All of us intend to do it in an effective and efficient way."

One criticism of the bill is that it is a bailout for states. But Rendell argued that the amount of deficit in state budgets far outweighs the amount of state aid in the bill.

"There's not a state in this union that is going to be able to use the stimulus money to wipe away all the problems, all the challenges we face," he said. "States are not off the hook. We're doing difficult and challenging things ourselves. This stops us from having massive layoffs and incredible reductions in services."

Not all governors have supported the package, and some Republican leaders have said they will turn down the money. But Rendell said he felt sure most governors will accept at least some of the funds offered to their states.

The package does have the support of the governors of two of the country’s largest states, California and Florida, led by Gov. Arnorld Schwarzenegger and Gov. Charlie Crist, who met with the president Monday to discuss the recession, the economic outlook and the federal stimulus package.

"The money is a real shot in the arm," Crist said of the state's expected $12.2 billion share of the stimulus bill. "It could not come at a better time for states that need the help."

Crist has been criticized by Florida Republicans for his support of the package, but Crist has dismissed the criticisms.

“I have to do in my heart what is good for the people and I think this bill is great for the people,” he said.

The money Florida could receive will be used for health care, education and roads.

“I’m enormously grateful that it passed, and I know it’s going to help our fellow Floridians in a substantial way,” Crist said. “It could not have come at a better time.”

Gadsden County officials gathered with officials from throughout the Big Bend area recently to lay out a plan for anticipated federal stimulus dollars. The proposed plan is a $1.1 billion stimulus package that would, if funded, create 15,931 jobs in the area. The package includes 91 projects in Gadsden County, totaling $183 million and creating 2,324 jobs.

Those projects include a variety of categroies, including school modernization, transportation, public housing, water infrastructure, health care, law enforcement and broadband technology.

But even with all the warm fuzzies brought on by funding on the horizon, Florida’s education leaders are still sweating.

During a meeting last week of the state’s school superintendents, Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith warned that a possible 16 percent budget cut could affect the 2009-10 school year.

Superintendents had been preparing for a 5 percent cut.

Whether that deep a cut is made will be affected by several factors, including whether economic projections for the state are less severe than the $5.5 billion expected and an increase in revenue from local property or state taxes. Also a factor is the stimulus package. Florida is not currently qualified for funds from the package based on federal requirements. But if the state receives a waiver, that could change.

Gadsden County Schools Superintendent Reginald James said he could not comment just yet on any more budget cuts.

“Let’s just see how things turn out over the next couple of weeks. There’s just so much still up in the air,” he said.