President Obama is meeting with a group of mayors today, in what will ostensibly be a mass-lobbying session for stimulus money to be directed to local municipalities.
One mayor in particular brings with him a fairly strong case. Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio makes the trek to Washington offering a case study in the vast potential of stimulus aid. His city's police department is poised to lay-off more than two dozen recruits who are just days away from full-time positions. They can avoid that fate with an infusion of cash.
Obama knows this. In the past two weeks, both he and his press secretary have held up the Columbus police department as Example A of the economic recovery package's job creation and saving potential.
"While this package is mostly composed of critical investments," said the president this past week, "it also includes aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of firefighters or police recruits -- recruits like the ones in Columbus, Ohio who were told that instead of being sworn-in as officers, they would be let go."
So it seems like a given that the crafters of the stimulus would fund a project that, at least for the president, underscores the legislation's importance.
But it's not that simple.
"The mayor is on a plane right now and will meet with the president," said Coleman's spokesman Dan Williamson. "He does not frankly expect to come back with a lot of specific knowledge about where we are ... Obviously the president mentioned it, so we will take him at his word that Columbus will see some money for police officers. What we don't know is how much or when."
It is, as is the case for countless other under-funded agencies and projects, a race against the clock. While the stimulus was passed with remarkable rapidity (given its scope and size), the state of the economy is such that, quite literally, every day counts. Recruits in Columbus will find themselves booted from the civilian police payroll on the February 27, the day after Coleman gives his state of the city address. The only way to void that fate is if the cash is sent directly to the city, as opposed to being funneled through the state or Justice Department. But even that might not be fast enough.
"We can't spend money that we don't have," said Williamson. "We will do whatever we can. I'm not ruling out the possibility that this class can be saved by federal dollars. It seems like that would be quite a quick turnaround, given how fast the government works."
At this juncture, local police and union officials are preparing themselves for the layoffs, though not without attempting some budget trickery first (such as having other unions shift funds to the police corps). If the money comes after the fact, they will use it to rehire the recruits. "We as a union are very hopeful that these guys will get their jobs back," said Jim Gilbert, head of Columbus' Capital City Lodge #9.
Certainly, the Columbus police have a leg up on the competition for government largesse. And it's easy to see why the administration would make them the poster child for the indispensability of a stimulus package. The class will cost $1.25 million to fund, according to the mayor's office -- a drop in the bucket considering the stimulus' $787 billion price tag. And the investment in the Columbus PD will have a host of politically advantageous side-affects: saving roughly two-dozen jobs, establishing a commitment to safety and security by buoying police forces, and (lest we forget to be cynical) propping up a mayor and governor who helped swing Ohio Obama's way during the election.