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, stimulus.virginia.gov, 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".
In an interview, Barrix, 22, said he took out an initial loan on his 1995 Jeep Cherokee 17 months ago, shortly after his daughter, Emma, was born. He and his wife were living at his grandfather's house, and they needed more than what he earned as a roofer to afford their own place. The lender wrote, offering $400. He bit, then fell behind.
"It's my fault. . . . It was a pretty big mistake on my behalf," Barrix said. "If I miss a payment on it, then they're going to come take it. It's kind of scary, man."
He needs the Jeep for his job with Comcast. He's a bill collector and cuts off service for cable customers who can't make payments. About three months ago, his income dropped roughly in half when disconnections soared and he lost many of the commissions that come from actual collections. "Hey, I still got a job. I'm not complaining," Barrix said.
Barrix made his latest all-interest payment a week ago, and another is already due. So he went to Kaine's Web site. "I figured I'd give it a shot," he said.
Others affected by more serious mistakes are also seeking relief.
Amber Hudson, who lives in Dumfries and works as a massage therapist at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, submitted a money-saving proposal for the early release of nonviolent offenders. "Think about the Bible Scripture 'He who is without sin, let them cast the first stone'. God Bless" she wrote.
A friend of hers is locked in an overcrowded regional jail for his second drunk-driving accident, Hudson said in an interview. No one was hurt in either crash, she said. He has been confined to an 8-by-10-foot cell, where one prisoner has to sleep on the floor.
"I'm not saying he doesn't deserve to be there, because he does," Hudson said. But after he has served 65 percent of his sentence, he should be released, she said, and the state should "put him in an alcohol-related program where he can learn, and help him get rid of the problem, instead of putting him in a cell where he's doing nothing because it's too crowded to move."
Her friend, not the taxpayers, should pay for the rehab, she said.
Some derided the entire Web enterprise.
On the day Kaine's effort was announced, a Fairfax man submitted two proposals totaling $5,000.
"I am seeking $1,000 to put hardwood floors in my house," read the first. It would cover 400 square feet, create one job and benefit the flooring company, he wrote. He also wants to improve his yard. "This project has been designed and is literally 'shovel' ready. I have selected a landscaping firm that needs the business but I just need the money."