The Economy Today: Schools, Sewers, and Savings

Headlines from Texas, California, Nebraska, Kansas, and elsewhere

The Obama administration has rebutted Sen. Tom Coburn’s list of projects he considers questionable stimulus spending with a list of its own. The New York Times reports: about 20 it categorized as “false,” about a dozen as “misleading”—and for about 16, the Times considers the administration’s response to be “’so what’ or simply, yes, that’s what the money was intended for.” About forty, though, are under review. An Obama spokesperson admitted that among the more than 20,000 projects approved so far, “there are bound to be some mistakes,” but retorted that “much of this seems to be little more than an objection to the Recovery Act itself.”

Another day, another prognostication: This time, a group of bankers says that the recession will end in the third quarter of 2009, according to Bloomberg. The advisory group of the American Bankers Association forecasts a growth in consumer spending, and steadily low interest rates until the end of 2010. The New York Times notes that new home construction saw a 17.2 percent increase. Still experts tell the Times that this doesn’t indicate that recovery is afoot. “While these levels of construction could mark a bottom, they are not likely to be the start of a turnaround, some experts said. ‘There’s a real possibility they will just stall at a low level,’ said Kenneth Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America. ‘If the recent jump in interest rates is sustained, that could choke off buyer enthusiasm for new homes.’”

USAToday gives voice to an AARP report that looks at how Baby Boomers will have to work for longer, save more, and spend less, in order to “reach any semblance” of the retirement they once imagined. According to AARP numbers, 35 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 54 have stopped putting money away into their 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts, 25 percent said they’ve prematurely withdrawn funds from those retirement accounts, and 24 percent have postponed plans to retire. But there may even be a silver lining for seniors who rethink retirement: they’re still healthy enough to keep working. USA Today also covers on a State Department report which finds that human trafficking has increased 30 percent during the global recession.

On the flip side, however, the Los Angeles Times finds that the “pet business is booming” despite the recession. Humans are expected to spend more than $51.6 billion on their pets.

Reuters, meanwhile, reports that the U.S. has only spent one percent of the $15 billion in stimulus funding that is available for transportation. According to a spokesperson for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the national focus on placing road repair projects in economically distressed areas is putting more pressure on the timeline to approve projects and get money to states—as is states’ scrambling to find money in their budgets to pay for projects (which are funded by way of reimbursements) upfront.

A new survey by the Brookings Institution finds that Omaha is weathering the recession better than many other cities around the country. Omaha ranks tenth among the strongest cities; “San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston ranked 1-2-3.” Omaha’s strong insurance industry and its diverse economy may be part of the explanation: “Omaha, the nation’s 60th-largest metro, also has strength in information technology (consider First Data, PayPal, Google, Yahoo and other data centers), transportation (Union Pacific Railroad), health care (regional hospitals that draw from a wide area), education (two sizable universities and two medical centers) and government (Offutt Air Force Base) — all employment sectors that nationally have been spared massive job losses.” The city’s unemployment is 5.1 percent, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Officials in Denton County, Texas, have helped gather together representatives from local agencies at a “Stimulus Act Summit” to identify possible projects that may qualify for stimulus funding, according to the Denton Record Chronicle. Among the projects identified: a 21-mile regional rail system project that would connect Denton with the city of Carrollton, the replacement of sewer lines, and the upgrading of public Internet access at three library branches.

And Dallas preservationists are happy because fewer developers are tearing down old buildings. “Katherine Seale, director of Preservation Dallas, said the most striking change she has noticed recently in her North Dallas neighborhood has been the lack of change – the teardowns of nearby ranch-style houses has all but ceased. The reason is the recession. ‘There’s an old joke that goes: ‘A bad economy is a preservationist’s best friend.’ People get hurt in times like these, so it’s not particularly funny,’ Seale said. ‘But it is true.’” In 2006, Dallas received twenty-one requests to tear down structures in historic districts, but this year, only nine such requests have been filed.

The city of San Mateo, meanwhile, has secured $875,800 in stimulus funds to use for such energy conservation projects, including putting solar panels on the roof of its main library, a project that has been on hold for two years because of budgetary constraints. The San Mateo Daily Journal reports that the system will generate approximately 11 percent of the library’s electricity needs, and that when the project is completed, the city will also reap a 30 percent federal tax credit. Among other things, the money will also fund the replacement of 193 streetlights with LED bulbs.

And the Ventura County Star reports that the Conejo Unified School District board in Ventura County, California, has decided unanimously to “rescind about 30 to 40 pink slips” that were delivered to teachers in March, deciding to use federal stimulus money to cover the district’s $8.5 million budget gap and keep the teachers onboard. Thirty-seven part-time positions, however, were cut, with the deputy superintendent stating: “It is a reality that paying a person who works five hours and still gets $12,000 in benefits is not cost-effective.”

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Katia Bachko and Jane Kim
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