MIAMI – A standing-room only crowd of about 600 residents and business owners flooded a town hall meeting this week in Liberty City, concerned about how they can get their fair share of federal economic stimulus money.
Florida expects to receive approximately $13 billion in stimulus money over the next three years, according to the Florida Office of Economic Recovery’s Web site.
More funding is possible if Florida’s state agencies, local governments, non-profits, businesses and schools successfully complete competitive grant program applications.
“The money started at the top and is trickling down to Miami-Dade,” said Matthew Pinzur, special assistant to the Miami-Dade County manager, during a May 11 town hall meeting at the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City.
The meeting focused on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the Economic Stimulus Package.
The stimulus bill, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17, seeks to address the country’s present economic crisis, and to build a foundation for its future.
The purpose of the meeting was to detail information about the stimulus package and how the funds will be allocated in Miami-Dade, according to State Sen. Frederica S. Wilson.
“I want to ensure that people who look like me get their fair share,” Wilson said. “They have a right to know, step by step, exactly what’s happening and how they can benefit.”
Wilson described the stimulus money as “flowing through the state and county,” and encouraged the meeting’s attendees to apply for grants.
“It’s not a hand out,” she said. “It’s your money, if you have worked.”
Pinzur, a former Miami Herald reporter, said that Miami-Dade County is “applying for all the programs available to us. We won’t leave a dollar on the table.”
To date, Miami-Dade has submitted 33 applications totaling $163 million.
“This means creating businesses and jobs,” Pinzur said. “There’s not a lot of money for the county, but we’ll get whatever we can.”
The money needs to be spent in three years, and in most cases, from one to two years.
One of the grants submitted is for weatherization. Four hundred homes per year for the next three years will be upgraded and repaired, Pinzur said.
“Last year, we did a total of 40 homes,” said Pinzur. “That’s a huge improvement.”
Miami-Dade’s grant applications include $19 million for the repair and upgrade of public housing; $7.4 million for homelessness prevention; $3.8 million for public parks; $3 million for job training and $56.2 million for roads and sidewalks.
The largest road and sidewalk project in Miami will be on Northeast Second Avenue between 57th and 69th streets, according to Pinzur.
“All monies for projects will be doled out fairly,” Pinzur said. “Everyone will be treated equally, and everything we do will be on public record.”
Pinzur added that there is also a plan to build Miami’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified fire station; purchase generators for all Miami-Dade Fire Rescue vehicles, and hire 30 to 50 new police officers.
No budget was detailed for these plans.
The state of Florida, in March 2008, paid out $115 million in unemployment benefits. In March 2009, benefit payments rose to $476 million, according to Rip Colvin, executive director of the Florida Legislative Committee on Intergovernmental Relations.
Using the stimulus package, unemployment benefits can now be extended 33 weeks and can be raised up to $25 per week, Colvin said. There will also be a temporary suspension on taxable benefits paid throughout 2009.
“It’s for the first $2400,” Colvin explained. “And if anyone wants to take advantage of the extended benefits, they must do so by Jan. 2, 2010.”
Other stimulus benefits include a maximum $2,500 tax credit for returning to school; a one-time payment of $250 for those who qualify for social security, supplemental security income and railroad retirement; credit for first-time homebuyers; tax cuts for more than 95 percent of working families.
“Not only will COBRA be extended beyond the traditional 18 months for needy individuals, but the federal government will pay 65 percent of the costs,” added Colvin.
Concerns voiced by the meeting’s attendees included “we need jobs, not unemployment,” “we want to be told the truth,” “we want jobs in our neighborhoods,” and “I can’t pay my mortgage and feed my children.”
Miami resident Ken Knight said that there are construction projects in his Liberty City neighborhood for which he was never given an opportunity to apply.
“I just want to know what’s fair about that. How can they come into my neighborhood with this [construction project] money, and offer nothing to its residents when we are the ones struggling?”
Earlier in the evening, Caleb Center security guards removed Knight from the meeting because of his aggressive interruptions. On the urging of the attendees to allow Knight to voice his complaints and concerns, he was allowed to return.
“We are here to find work,” said Knight. “I don’t want to be told that it’s coming and never see a dime of the money go to local businesses and residents.”
Colvin said that Florida “is not a poor state,” and that there are “places the legislation can go to get this money.”
For more information on the stimulus package and its benefits, visit www.miamidade.gov/recovery.
Photo by Mychal McDonald. State Sen. Frederica Wilson addresses a crowd of 600 residents and business owners about the president’s economic stimulus package during a May 11 town hall meeting at the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City.