Dear Gov. Kaine: Spare Some Stimulus Cash?

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

A week before President Obama signed the stimulus bill, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine launched a Web site that posed a basic question: How should we spend the money?

Almost immediately, what seemed like a simple exercise in Internet-era good government morphed into something more personal. Amid widespread calls for fixing roads and aiding teachers came a host of digital submissions that sounded more like pleas, or prayers.

Eric Blow, a Fairfax County software development manager, asked for $50,000 so his wife could turn her fledgling cake-decorating business into a bakery. Ron Houser, a state investigator from south of Culpeper, asked for $50,000 to help send his oldest son to college. "His mother and I can contribute the remaining $13,200," Houser wrote.

The stories behind the burgeoning list, which neared 3,000 as of yesterday, formed an impromptu mosaic of need as the economic crisis deepens. Individuals and small communities fear being overlooked.

Nick Kitchen, mayor of the southern Virginia town of Capron, with 163 residents, requested $150,000 to replace 15 leaky fire hydrants so bacteria doesn't seep into the water. In the state's far west, consultant Rick Chitwood asked for $20 million for water and sewer projects, including $8.5 million to stretch pipes to 250 families in Buchanan County living near coal mines.

"A lot of them are having to buy water, haul water, get water any way they can. It's pretty pitiful," Chitwood said in an interview. The foul-smelling, iron-filled liquid is bad for clothes. "The whites are just plum red when they finish washing."

The Democratic governor's office said it will divvy up the requests made to the site,, and forward some of them to the right departments throughout state government. Others will be sent on to localities, officials said.

They will need to weed out the expected cranks, who were sure to come out after being invited to what amounts to a statewide open-mike night. And they will have to accurately price genuine requests. A tally of entries thus far tops $85 billion, a figure that is as unwieldy as it is unrealistic.

"Obviously, there's going to be many more suggestions than we can do," said Kaine's spokesman, Gordon Hickey, who is helping oversee the effort. Although officials have ample projects that need funding, they said they are committed to wading through the thousands of additional ideas. Any skepticism that the Internet effort might be a public relations ploy, as some local officials have suggested, is wrongly placed, he said.

"That's a cynical approach that really is off-base. We do have a bunch of projects, but we also are not omniscient. The government doesn't know everything," Hickey said. "We asked the citizens to give us their suggestions. . . . They will be taken seriously."

At a time when vast sums have been injected into the financial system to prop up banks whose executives made bad decisions, and when sweeping aid for overstretched homebuyers might be next, some requests might not be as unthinkable as they once might have been.

Tony Barrix Jr., who lives in the Shenandoah Valley community of Bridgewater, asked for $2,000 to pay off a high-interest loan he took out using his car title as security. He offered this in the Project Description field online: "I just went and paid $380.00 for one month and not a penny went towards my 1500.00 loan. ive had the loan now for over a year and cannot get it paid off. If i get behind on my payment they are going to take the only way i can support my family. Please help me pay off this loan before we lose everything. Thanks soo much Tony Barrix Jr".

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