— By Josh Harkinson | Tue March 10, 2009 4:48 PM PST
In Los Angeles County, cities are buying federal stimulus funds from each other at deep discounts, turning what was supposed to be a targeted infusion of cash into a huge auction.
It all started when the county's Metropolitan Transportation Agency decided to hand out $44 million from the federal stimulus package in the form of $500,000 transportation grants to each of the county's 88 cities. But some cities didn't have any shovel-ready transportation projects. So with MTA's blessing, they're selling the grants to the highest bidder:La Habra Heights, a city of 6,000, has sold its $500,000 in federal funds to the city of Westlake Village for $310,000 cash. Irwindale, population 1,500, also sold its $500,000 to Westlake Village, for $325,000 cash.
The city of Rolling Hills, population 1,900, sold its $500,000 share to the city of Rancho Palos Verdes for $305,000 cash. The city of Avalon has reached an agreement to swap its $500,000 with L.A. County.
This is Southern California that we're talking about--the land of eternal gridlock. MTA could have redirected the money to a nearly infinite list of other transportation projects. But chief planning officer Carol Inge told the Pasadena Star-News that the agency didn't want to do that because "our board wanted to give every city at least a chance to benefit from the stimulus package."
I'm sure many cities have higher priorities than transportation. And I would have liked to have seen more direct aid to ailing local governments in the stimulus bill. Still, MTA's approach strikes me as a bit too creative. What's next, stimuls money credit default swaps?
Auctioning off the funds is an awesome idea, but it goes to show how effective we can expect them to be, if recipients only value them at sixty cents on the dollar. Also note that the L.A. MTA has already cancelled the auction for fears of bad press, but are we supposed to believe that that means they'll be spent more wisely now? Doubt it.