As reporting deadline looms, stimulus recipients brace for uncertainty

The National Association of Counties (NACo) held a webinar Tuesday for recipients of stimulus funds. Forum participants called the data gathering process for the upcoming reporting deadlines a “first of its kind effort” and praised county leaders for helping facilitate the largest government-to-government collaboration project the country has ever undertaken. But they also tempered expectations by acknowledging a level of uncertainty about how the reporting process will unfold.

The National Association of Counties (NACo) held a webinar yesterday for those state and local officials who have received money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In anticipation of the October 10 reporting deadline for recipients of stimulus funds, NACo Deputy Director of County Services Stephanie Osborn hosted the forum, consisting of Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board and Office of Management and Budget officials. Forum participants called the upcoming reporting process as a first of its kind effort and praised county leaders for helping facilitate the largest government-to-government collaboration the country has ever undertaken. But they also tempered anticipations by warning both federal and local government leaders were attempting something new and largely untried.

Ms. Osborn said that just over seventeen percent of the money obligated thus far ($207 billion through mid-September) had been spent. But that an increasing number of local projects were getting underway. “We’re seeing a real ramp-up in the past six to eight weeks,” Osborn said in her opening remarks.

According to the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, the states are split closely on how they’re choosing to report their Recovery Act activities. Some states are centralizing, or bunching, reports through a Recovery Act coordinator, such as California’s decision to have State Inspector General Laura Chick act as the central reporting figure to agencies in Washington, D.C. Other states are more decentralized in their approach, opting to let individual state agencies report to the federal government about their stimulus projects.

But as far as the federal government is concerned, OMB Program Examiner John Pasquantino said both methods face the same unique challenges. “We recognize there is a particular burden that has really never been put in place before, so we’ve tried to put in a framework and some guidance with that understanding,” he said. Mr. Pasquantino mentioned the earlier OMB guidance memos that circulated in April, May and June, speaking to parts of the Recovery Act, especially Section 1512 – outlining the roles and responsibilities of fund recipients.

“States and counties have special responsibilities, so we have initiated a unique government-to-government outreach program. We are looking to provide some unique solution to get the answers the recipients are facing,” Pasquantino said, explaining how RAT Board members and OMB staff are contacting each of the state’s governor’s offices to offer on-site assistance during the reporting period Oct. 1 through Oct. 10. He said that offer was also being extended to the larger cities and counties. “We’re extending this outreach to about fifty of the largest city and county recipients,” though Mr. Pasquantino acknowledged the list has not been finalized, due to ongoing obligation announcements. “The list follows the money trail,” Mr. Pasquantino said.

Despite the extraordinary level of multi-level government collaboration, Mr. Pasquantino said OBM and the President recognized that this was a “first of its time endeavor” spanning every corner of the country and that mistakes are going to be made.

“We know the answers [OMB provides] aren’t going to be perfect,” but he suggests recipients follow three guidelines when reporting: 1) Make a good faith effort to get quality data, 2) provide the data in a way that is transparent, and 3) Make sure the data gathering process is documented.

The third and final presenter during NACo’s online forum was Nancy DiPaolo, Assistant Director, Congressional & Intergovernmental Affairs at Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board. Ms. DiPaolo outlined the updates to Recovery.gov, which re-launched with a bevy of new content and features Monday. “We’re very excited about Reocvery.gov,” Ms. DiPaolo said, while demonstrating the new interactive maps, which allow users to search through Recovery Act projects by using area codes.

Ms. DiPaolo also spoke about upcoming features, including the difference between the agency reporting maps (the yellow/gold map available now) and the grey/blue map that will be used for recipient reporting. She also said they were working on widgets – automatic feeds – state and county governments could use on their websites to provide their constituents information on stimulus programs in their area. “All data will be available in a lot of different formats,” she said.

Beyond the expanded functionality of Recovery.gov, the site also contains volumes of FAQs for recipients and sub-recipients, as well as past Recovery Act documentation and memos. However, like the previous speakers before her, Ms. DiPaolo stressed the need for states and counties to have a trail they could turn to in the event of discrepancies.

“We anticipate and understand there will be a lot of lessons learned come November 1.”

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