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Obama's Stimulus Failure: Tampa Recipients Have No Clue They Got Funds

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TAMPA, Fla. -- With the full docket of Republican convention speakers hammering him over the stimulus package he passed early in his presidency, Barack Obama said in an interview published Thursday morning that the main problem with the legislation was a public relations one.

"[W]e were in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, so we had to just do stuff fast," Obama told Time magazine. "And sometimes, it wasn’t popular. And we didn’t have the luxury of six months to explain exactly what we were doing with the Recovery Act, which was basically a jobs act and making sure middle-class families didn’t fall into poverty act."

It's a convenient out for politicians to blame a policy's lack of popularity on an insufficient communications push, but in the case of the American Recovery Act, the president may have a point. The Huffington Post reached out to a dozen stimulus recipients in the Tampa area near the Republican convention to see how the bill affected them. Of those who agreed to talk about it, only one initially knew that they'd received any stimulus money.

Jay Catalani didn't know the $22,550 contract he received to electrify water meters inside veteran cemeteries throughout Florida came from the government.

"I had no idea. I was a subcontractor bidding a job through another company," Catalani said. "My check didn't come from the government. It came from the company we were working for."

Catalani owns two companies near Tampa. The website for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act said the contract went to Light Vision of Tampa Bay, but Catalani recalled that the money went to his other company, called Electric Eels Inc. It was a subcontract from TL Services, a government contractor that received more than $13 million in stimulus funds.

Catalani initially denied that his company benefited from the government spending, but changed his tune after HuffPost told him the precise amount of the contract as listed on Recovery.gov.

"Nobody explained the stimulus and nobody explained the health care bill," Catalani said. "It should have been just literally peeled through like an onion and it wasn't."

And yet, the stimulus has had a lasting impact on Catalani's company, which now has 12 workers. "I ended up adding two employees," he said. "I didn't know it was a stimulus, but it stimulated my company. And I still have them today. Even though it was only $20,000, but ... we were right on the cusp of, 'Hey, should we bring more people on or shouldn't we?' We brought two guys on and ended up keeping those two people."

Like Catalani's business, Hamilton Engineering & Surveying Inc, a Tampa civil engineering, environmental and land planning company, received a small infusion of stimulus cash. The $5,500 contract was so small, in fact, that officials didn't realize its origin.

"Maybe that's why I don't know anything about it," Carol Scheafnocker, the company's chief marketing officer told The Huffington Post. "I had no idea [we received stimulus money] whatsoever."

Having not known about the stimulus funds, it was impossible for Scheafnocker to say how (or if) it had an impact on the company. But she said that business "is definitely better than it was" albeit "not as good as it could be."

"We are one of the ones who survived so I guess we are on the good side of things," she added.

Steve Ward & Associates Inc., a Tampa firm that represents manufacturers and does health care consulting, got $16,631 in stimulus funds. But Scott Moore, an official with the company, likewise couldn't recall what it was for nor whether they'd received it in the first place.

"Our corporate office can speak to that," he said. The corporate office ended up not returning a request for comment, but federal records suggest that the money was to renovate buildings (perhaps their own) with energy efficient features.

It may be easy to not notice an infusion of $5,500 or $16,000 into some companies, but Tampa-based organizations that received far more stimulus funds were equally in the dark. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of Florida's Tampa division received $117,000 in Recovery Act money (via the Department of Homeland Security) on Sept. 29, 2009. But a spokesman for the commission said he was unaware of the government help.

"Are you sure that we got stimulus funds?" Gary Morse, an official with the commission asked. "OK, I have no clue about that. You would have to call our finance and accounting department in Tallahassee."

A call to that department was not returned. But federal government records show that it received eight awards through the stimulus act totaling $640,000-plus dollars (a chunk of which went to Tampa).

And therein lies the difficulties with the president's stimulus act sales job. Recipients often received help only after it had been filtered down through several other entities or government agencies.

The Tampa chapter of the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, for example, received $398,000 that originated with the stimulus. But it took a bit of digging from the group's Chief Financial Officer Michael Sapp to figure out how, exactly, it ended up in their coffers. The stimulus funds, he concluded upon investigation, weren't given directly from the federal government. Instead, the state used them to fill a hole in the Florida mentoring grant program; the cash helped the group buy supplies, make payments to part-time staff, and execute the Girl Scout the program.

But it wasn't stimulative as much as preventative.

"It didn't build anything. It was not tangible," said Sapp. "To us, it was just the continuation of funding. I can't say if it helped or if it didn't help. They just shifted money into our pot."

Sapp had considered taking advantage of another stimulus program -- administered by the Florida Department of Energy -- which would have covered a share of the cost of retrofitting the organization's old office building. But when it turned out that the project would have cost far more than the initial estimation, he balked at the idea. Instead, they moved locations, settling on an nondescript office building right off a busy road miles out of downtown Tampa, with a still-to-be-completed ground floor being designed, in part, by a dozen of young Girl Scout members.

Henriquez Electrical Corporation, in Tampa, took advantage of the program that Sapp skipped. The company received $75,064 in stimulus funds to outfit its business with solar panels as part of an effort to lower its energy costs and show, to other companies, that it could do help them with their own retrofitting.

Sharon Henriquez, the owner of the company, had no trouble recounting that she received stimulus cash, but she had mixed opinions on its success. Under the program, she had to cover the costs for the solar panels and their installation herself, after which the government would pay her back a portion of the cost. The Obama administration was quick to send her a check, but the state of Florida, which was responsible for part of the tab, took two years.

Still, since they made the switch, the Henriquez Electrical Corporation has saved between $100 and $150 a month on its electrical bill. "I would say, for us, probably as our business, just to save money on our electric bill, yes the stimulus helped," she said. "But it didn't work from a marketing perspective."

The president, likely, would agree.

CORRECTION: The Tampa chapter of the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida took advantage of a $398,000 grant for the state mentoring program, not a $172,000 grant, as the article originally stated. The $172,000 was money that the organization had considered using to retrofit its old office building, but ultimately decided against using.

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