Monday, February 23, 2009

Stimulating the South

A handful of articles in the news recently have highlighted how careful we need to be with what qualifies for stimulus money.

First, there's the disinterest in public transit funds Florida seems have where the new stimulus package is concerned. The 'blog Jacksonville Transit covers just how much - or rather, how little - Florida has requested for this item.

Second, there's a related item on how developers have pressured Tallahassee to repeal the roadbuilding requirement for new developments. It's a lot easier and cheaper, after all, if the folks building all those new communities don't have to worry about getting access to them.

So far, Florida's reaction to the stimulus seems to be helping build more new spread-out subdivisions while freeing the folks building them from worrying about how the residents will get to work, shopping - pretty much anything but the clubhouses. This of course leaves a cash-strapped state on the hook for all the related infrastructure - roads, sewers, etc. - for all that new construction. This despite the still-plummeting real estate values and the skyrocketing foreclosure rate. What makes it worse is that Florida's House representation, being largely Republican, opposed the stimulus even though their own constituents believe the package is needed.

Never mind that the state is being set up for some absolutely ugly expenditures filling in all those gaps. Never mind that adding to already-barely-controlled urban sprawl is, in the current climate, a bad idea. And never mind that the state's population figures - driven largely by transplants moving here from other states - is leveling off and may actually begin dropping, reducing demand for all those shiny new subdivisions. There's one teensy additional problem: there may not be sufficient natural resources remaining to provide for all those new residents.

Tampa is implementing tighter water restrictions in the face of a drought that is worsening. The report is but one of many in recent months on the problem that now affects most of the state. Water in Florida has always been an issue: now, it seems, the local resources are failing to sustain even the current population.

Florida is already in the middle of a water war with Alabama and Georgia. Georgia wants to turn off the taps to downstream states to keep Atlanta awash with local water, mostly from Lake Lanier, its tributaries and the aquifers in the other states fed by that resource. Instate resources are either drying up or becoming contaminated as salt water from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico intrudes into local wells.

So just as the resources are beginning to fail locally, and the developments from the last real estate boom are either sitting empty or being foreclosed, the state is looking to stimulus dollars to refuel the housing boom of the last decade. That's right: the same housing boom that helped bring Florida to its knees when the market tanked is being trumpeted as the state's economic salvation. Only this time the local natural resources may run out before the stimulus dollars, and the state will be left to provide all the infrastructure not included in all the new building boom. At the same time, projects that could actually shore up the development from the last boom, restoring its value and marketability, and actually improve the lives of the citizenry, are being virtually ignored.

This is why stimulus spending needs to be carefully planned and closely observed. It is also why blanket block grants without constraints in situations like these run the very real risk of doing nothing but line the pockets of the people and businesses least in need of the assistance.

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