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Tracking the stimulus through Pickens


Rock Creek Manor staff member Sarah Ellis, LPN speaks with resident Effie Norris at the assisted living home on Lower Dowda Mill Road. The facility was constructed using a stimulus-backed SBA loan. Rock Creek now employs 25 people.


     When the bottom dropped out of the economy, Scott Morgan’s career took a nosedive.

     “I worked at a distribution company, and my pay was cut to 50 percent,” he said. “There were a ridiculous set of rules that I was then being asked to follow, and I just had to find something else.”

     Morgan left his position at a plant in Metro Atlanta and got a $60,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, which was made available through the Congress-approved American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With that money, Morgan founded Morgan Advanced Products, based out of Pickens, and he is now in his third year of business, selling test and safety equipment to power companies.

     “That loan helped keep me afloat while I was getting on my feet,” he said. “It helped me buy some demo equipment and a trailer for traveling and gave me some breathing room.”

     Morgan is one of 12 Pickens County business owners that took out stimulus-backed SBA loans, and he represents just a small portion of the millions in stimulus funding that flowed through the county.


Pickens’ piece of the pie


      Of $840 billion allocated under the stimulus since 2009, about $757 billion has been pumped through the American economy so far. According to an analysis of federal spending under the stimulus, Pickens County received a $25 million slice of that pie.

     Pickens’ share of recovery money averaged out to $844 per person, which is $550 less than the Georgia average and nearly half of what was received per capita nationwide.      However, Pickens had a slightly higher unemployment rate than the state and nation.

     Of the $25 million that has been funneled through Pickens County, about 80 percent went through four federal agencies:


•            the Small Business Administration, whose funding went to help businesses get financing from lenders,

•            the Department of Energy, which went to fund weatherization through the North Georgia Community Action Center,

•            the Department of Education, which went primarily to teachers’ salaries, special education funding through the Pickens school system and PELL Grant funding, and

•            the Department of Agriculture, which supported home loans for low-income residents.

     A look at surrounding counties offers a bit more perspective.

     Gilmer County to the north, which shares similar demographics but which suffered higher unemployment, received nearly $200 more per person. More than half of the $29 million Gilmer received went to SBA loans.

     Cherokee County to the south, which had a lower unemployment rate from 2009 through 2011, received $300 less per capita than Pickens. Cherokee's money went to education and SBA loans, with the third-largest chunk going to road improvements, including those on Highway 575.

     Dawson County to the east received nearly $200 less than Pickens per capita, with the largest portion going to low-income housing loans through the Department of Agriculture.

     The figures on recovery spending were obtained from, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit organization that does reporting projects in the public interest. ProPublica’s team took numbers from two federal government sources, and, eliminated duplications and errors, and published the data in an interactive section of its website for public use.

     The primary objective of the recovery funding was to save or create jobs, but it was also meant to provide relief for programs like education and infrastructure and other industries hit hardest by the recession. Tax credits, additional Social Security, and other spending (like for weatherization of low-income homes) was included in the Recovery Act to pump money into the economy.

     We explored some of the biggest recipients in Pickens to find out if the money did, in fact, do what it was intended to do.


In school system, layoffs avoided


     According to Pickens County Schools Finance Director Amy Burgess, the stimulus funding softened the blow of massive state funding cuts and was instrumental in preventing layoffs in the system.

     “We had already planned that we were going to have to do away with positions,” said Burgess. “We were trying to do it by attrition, but it was becoming so big that we were considering layoffs.”

     Burgess said loss of state funds just after the economic crash would have been much harder on the county system had the federal government not stepped in and provided some relief.

     In 2009 the county school system was facing $3 million in budget cuts at the state level, about seven percent of the total budget.

     Through the Recovery Act, the school system received a $2.46 million State Fiscal Stabilization Fund grant that went directly to fund teachers’ salaries. They also received about $850,000 for special education programs and $511,000 for Title I funding, a program that provides financial assistance to schools with a high percentage of low-income students.

     “The [stabilization fund] was intended for teachers’ salaries, and that’s all we used it for,” Burgess said. “What we were going to lose with the state, the federal government gave us. It was to help save jobs. You either added a brand new position, or, if you were in our situation, we were looking at cutting positions, and instead of losing certain types of staff, we were able to keep those people.”

     Burgess said that according to a formula provided by the state, the Pickens school system was able to retain a total of 28.5 positions as a result of recovery funding. Burgess noted, however, there was a significant reduction in staff size despite the influx of funding.

     “We have cut our operating money back over the last couple of years,” she said. “Between October of 2008 and now, we’ve cut in excess of 90 positions across the board, but we haven’t laid people off.”

     The stimulus money allowed the system time to reorganize, adjust class sizes, and take similar measures, Burgess said. Instead of a mass layoff, "we were able to reduce the size by attrition," she said.

     Burgess said money received by way of the special education grant went to fund either para-pros or specialized, often expensive, equipment required for special needs students.

     “Sometimes we would need a certain type of equipment,” she said, “like if you have a visually impaired student, you might need a machine to magnify materials, or you might need Braille materials, or a lift for physically disabled students.”

     Burgess said the system also purchased a $100,000 special needs bus with part of this funding.

     Burgess said Title I funding, which is earned based on student participation in the free and reduced meal program, is currently used for para-pros at the elementary level, the Learning Support Specialist at the elementary level, supplemental instructional materials and web support for instructional programs at elementary and middle school.

     The school system’s Parent Involvement Coordinator and parent meetings are also paid for out of these funds.

     “Really, the stimulus money bought us some time to reorganize,” Burgess said. “Most of it went to offset loss of jobs, but it also allowed us to do things we couldn’t have done, like purchase the bus. I don’t know if we could have done that at that time.

     “The stimulus gave us two years, and we knew at the end of that two years it was gone,” she added. “We’ve lost that funding now, but it allowed more time to look at what we had and what we were trying to accomplish and figure out a way to do it.”


Homes weatherized, evictions avoided


     The second largest sum of recovery money in Pickens County came through the Department of Energy down through the North Georgia Community Action (NGCA) agency, a non-profit that provides a variety of services to low-income, elderly and homebound people in a 10-county region that includes Pickens.

     A total of $5.7 million went to fund NGCA’s weatherization program. Through their weatherization program, homes are inspected and retrofitted to make them more energy efficient. To homeowners that apply and qualify, their homes could receive new light bulbs, attic insulation, wall insulation, weather stripping and abatement of leaking carbon monoxide from heating sources, among other things.

     “We actually weatherized a total of 39 homes in Pickens with the stimulus money,” said NGCA Executive Director Jonathan Ray, who noted that 770 homes were weatherized in their 10-county area. The amount of weatherization money that was distributed to each county was determined by a formula based on population, size and poverty levels.

     “Of that total $5.7 million, we also invested close to $1.5 million of that money back into the local economy here in Pickens County,” he said. “There was a lot of negative connotation surrounding the money, but agree or disagree, the fact remained that this money was coming down the pipeline, and if we did not take the necessary action to garner [it] and use it for some purpose to reinvest back into the community, then it would have gone to someone else.”

     Ray said that $1.5 million came to Pickens through direct material and supply purchases through local businesses like hardware stores, supply stores, insurance agencies and printing services.

     NGCA also hired some local contractors for some of the work performed on homes.

     “We had an [in-house] crew that had levels of certification that would do the work,” Ray said, “but where specialized licenses are needed, such as HVAC, plumbing, gas and electricians, we would subcontract that out.”

     Ray said in their 10-county region NGCA created 35 jobs through contracted work with their weatherization program, and he said he feels like NGCA did its due diligence when it came to using the stimulus weatherization money as it was intended.

     “The purpose was to help the grassroots efforts with the local economy, and we certainly felt like we did that,” he said. “Job creation, we certainly did that, and not to mention the long enduring impact that homeowners are going to see with the energy conservation. That’s certainly going to have a long-term ripple effect past the point of this money being rolled out.”

     But this year, Ray said, the weatherization program’s funding is expected to be cut to levels below the pre-stimulus amount of $500,000.

     “The talk is that since there were so many homes weatherized, that program doesn’t need as much funding,” he said. “We’re expecting a 25 to 30 percent cut.”

     NGCA also received $1.3 million in recovery funding through the Department of Health and Human Services that went to prevent foreclosures and evictions in the area.

Ray said through this program NGCA kept 45 households in Pickens County from eviction or foreclosure by paying rent or paying mortgages for a short period to give residents time to get back on their feet. NGCA invested over $210,000 to the foreclosure and eviction program in Pickens. The program was awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.

In the 10-county region NGCA prevented 516 households from foreclosure or eviction, he said.

     “It was good to see that we could get in there and intervene at a time when a lot of families were in crisis mode,” he said. “They were in fear of losing their home and not being able to find jobs. These were people who had never been in this position before, and we were able to step in and help fill that gap and provide assistance, and once they could get on their feet, they could regain a financial footing.

     “We have even had some of the people who benefited from the program come back into the office,” he added. “They are on their feet, doing much better, and a handful have donated back to the program.”


Did SBA loans really help?


     In all there were 12 small businesses in Pickens County that received nearly $6 million in stimulus-backed SBA loans.

     These loans were meant to help small upstart businesses so they could hire people, create jobs and bolster the economy at the local level.

     Rock Creek Manor principal owner Christine Van der Walt, who borrowed $1.6 million, the largest SBA loan in the county, said she would have never been able to start her business without the stimulus-backed lending.

     “I know that for a fact we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Van der Walt said. Her business now employs 25 people at an assisted-living facility on Lower Dowda Mill Road.

     Van der Walt said she put together a business plan and submitted it to numerous banks that told her they did not offer SBA loans.

     “But we weren’t asking for an SBA loan then,” she said. “From what I understand, there wasn’t a bank in Georgia that would take that risk. Eventually a bank in Gilmer County agreed, and we did an SBA loan, which apparently this bank had never done before.”

     Van der Walt said 90 percent of her employees are from Pickens County with the remaining 10 percent from either Gilmer or Cherokee.

     “We have 30 residents here and eight daycare folks,” she said. “Because of our good success, we are now licensed to do in-home care, which will add 20 to 30 additional staff. Without that funding we wouldn’t be here at all.”

     But not all business owners in Pickens who took out an SBA loan feel the same way as Van der Walt and Scott Morgan, the man who used the money to start Morgan Advanced Products.

      Take Marble Hill Ace Hardware owner Mike Gandy, who took out a $1.3 million SBA loan through his lender. Gandy said he would have been able to acquire lending without help from the SBA, and, in effect, accomplish the same thing with his business.

      “To tell you the truth, it didn’t make a difference in how many people I hired,” he said. “I would have gotten the loan from the bank without the SBA, and I would have still hired the same people. The SBA loan just made it easier for me to get the money.”

     Gandy, who purchased the Ace Hardware store from a former owner after it closed, said the only thing the SBA did for him was guarantee payment of the loan, and he questions the validity of the SBA loans as a true stimulus program.

     “Of course the banks wanted you to do it, because there was no risk for them,” he said. “The SBA is not a stimulus program. It’s a guarantee. No one from the government put a check in my pocket. The bank did that.”

     Don Boggus, former CEO of Crescent Bank, shed some light on the matter.

     Boggus said that prior to the SBA stimulus program the Small Business Administration would guarantee 75 percent of the loan to a lender, but for this guarantee the borrower would be required to pay a guarantee fee to the SBA.

      What the stimulus did was change those terms to make the SBA loans more attractive to both lenders and borrowers. Under the stimulus, the SBA loans were guaranteed at 90 percent of the loan amount, and the guarantee fee was waived.

      “This generated a lot of interest in SBA,” Boggus said. “Banks were less exposed and were more in place to lend more money.”

Boggus said banks were also permitted to sell the guaranteed portion of the loan to another entity.

      “The bank still services the loan,” he said, “but that would free up liquid assets, so they could lend more. People came, and banks were encouraging. It was a good opportunity.”

     Rock Solid Ventures (Bigun’s BBQ) owner Lisa Teal said she was encouraged by her bank in Ellijay, which was struggling to stay afloat, to refinance their loan as an SBA to do just that.

      “They wanted to free up their books a little,” Teal said, “so we refinanced. We got better terms and a better interest rate that way.”

Boggus noted that while terms of the SBA changed under the stimulus, credit standards for borrowers did not.

     “What the SBA does is opens up lending to borrowers who may not be able to borrow otherwise,” he said. “There’s not as much risk for lenders. Overall I think it was effective. It certainly helped make credit available, and I believe that having available credit makes a big impact on the economy.”


Resources for further study

     Other recipients of stimulus funding here include Pickens County government through the Environmental Protection Agency, which went to help fund the construction of the water tank on Whorley Crossroads; the Boys & Girls Club of North Georgia through the Department of Justice, low-income housing loans through the Department of Agriculture, the Jasper Housing Authority though the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a few others.

     To track stimulus funding on your own visit, or