Where Federal Stimulus Money Was Spent in San Diego

Some of the jobs created in certain sectors cost California more than a million dollars apiece

When a single gallon of gas sets you back more than a small vanilla latte you know it's a sign the economy is in trouble.

It turns out that these days even the signs of economic trouble are costing us money.

Roadside signs signaling federal stimulus work like one posted along Interstate 805 in the heart of San Diego even cost money.

While they can cost as much as $10,000 in some parts of the country, California transportation officials said the signs in San Diego cost a maximum of $5,000 per sign.

There are more signs that taxpayers paid for at the San Diego airport.

Air traffic signs and LED runway lights help pilots keep passengers safe but at a price. The lights cost $9 million.

“We were able to get this done faster because of the federal stimulus," said San Diego Airport spokesperson Katie Jones.

Working in conjunction with Propublica, a non-profit newsgathering organization, NBCSanDiego discovered some surprising information.

While some improvements may be here to stay, the jobs are not. The upgrades funded by federal stimulus money did not create any long-term positions.

In fact, our research reveals some of the jobs created in California cost more than a million dollars apiece.

Economist Alan Gin believes the blame should fall on lawmakers for trying to spread the money too thin.

“I think the better thing to do would have been to concentrate the funds in a few areas,” Gin said. “I think more needed to be spent on infrastructure. - constructing roads, bridges - street repairs."

Shovel-ready jobs were touted by the Obama administration when the stimulus was adopted and initially thousands of Californians found long term employment while working on new highways and high rises.

But NBCSanDiego found other areas where creating jobs was never the sole mission. Take Chula Vista for example.

Brendan Reed is in charge of the $1.9 million taxpayer granted to Chula Vista. He said the money paid for solar panels on city buildings, a biodiesel tank and a citywide appliance rebate program.

"So, today we have spent about $330,000 in the community and about 2500 residents have benefited from the program," Reed said.

According to Reed, the city of Chula Vista did not use the money for long-term staff. He said the government's intent was on improving gas emissions and cutting diesel fuel, not on hiring.

When asked how he would respond to some critics who may say the stimulus was intended to help add jobs, Reed said the grant money the City of Chula Vista received was to help the community with energy use.

"And that's exactly what we did - and we did it through our solar projects, our appliance rebate projects, and that benefits the community and its participants in the long run," Reed said.

It's the kind of answer that has even the highest ranking officials in Washington, D.C. debating whether the stimulus funds were a success.

We found another example of that debate while following the stimulus money trail to the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.

Sonia Sharma, Ph.D., was hired to oversee a new lab purchased with nearly $13 million in stimulus funds. The new technology helps research study diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

“Grant funding has a long history of stimulating the economy," said Steven Wilson, Ph.D., the institute's vice president. 

While the number of jobs created here was small Wilson said the impact was not. He said this funding helps San Diego remain a leader in the bio tech sector.

When asked what he would say to critics who believe the facility did not create enough jobs with the stimulus funds, Wilson said the argument is unacceptable.

"If you think every dollar has to have the maximum number of jobs then perhaps the stimulus dollars should have focused on low-paying assembly jobs that were out of this sector all together," he said.

It's an argument -- economists like Alan Gin will continue to debate.

"I think it did a good job in slowing the decline," Gin said.

Bottom line, Gin believes pumping federal money into solar energy projects and appliance programs missed the mark.

Whether it was the proper antidote to the financial poison the U.S. faces will be debated for decades to come. 

This report originally aired on NBC 7 on February 13, 2012.

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