February 6th, 2009
11:01 AM ET

Life and death - but is it a stimulus?

Last October, Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama greeted firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Last October, Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama greeted firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Steve Brusk
CNN Senior National Editor

The call came in to the Kansas City, Missouri fire dispatch center at 3:44am. A blind resident reported his three-story apartment building was on fire, and feeling heat on the other side of his door, was unable to escape.

“This is the scary time for fire departments”, Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said. Middle of the night fire calls mean the greatest danger, especially in large apartment buildings, with residents often asleep.

Operators using the public safety radio system immediately sent 22 firefighters to help, dispatching three engine and two ladder companies to the scene in the city’s Westport neighborhood. At least they thought they did.

But a minute later, when no fire trucks answered the call, dispatchers realized something was wrong. They called Station 19, Battalion 106 to make sure the units were responding, and were told the fire never came over the radio.

The antiquated radio system had gone down, and none of the city’s 34 fire houses could hear emergency calls. Dispatchers used telephones to get the units on their way, but as more 911 calls came in from the apartment house, they were unable to relay updated information to them.

Firefighters were able to rescue the trapped man who made the 911 call, as well as an injured resident found during the search of the smoke-filled building. Despite a three-minute delay in sending help because of the radio failure, no one was badly hurt that morning.

Dyer called the radio system failure a “critical incident…life-threatening”. And its cause: an aging part the manufacturer no longer makes. The replacement part they used to fix it during the 20-minute outage was bought on the internet. The system is 17 years old, and they call around the country to find spare parts for it. “A last resort”, he said, “is buying them on eBay.”

Kansas City is now trying to replace the radio system, at an estimated cost of at least $30 million. But the financially-strapped city is wrestling with how to pay for the project. Their hope is the economic stimulus package.

The radio system will be on the city’s wish list for its share of the federal money. And as evidenced by the October 26th radio incident, no one would argue it isn’t vital and much-needed project. But it is an example from America’s heartland of a debate being played out in virtually every community around the nation.

Does this ultimately have anything to do with fixing the economy, and should it be part of the stimulus bill? Among a list of thousands of local projects, there is disagreement over where development stops, and pork begins.

There’s no question in Chief Dyer’s mind. “To me, a city’s communications system is part of any city’s infrastructure, like sewers, bridges and roadways.” He said the project would be labor-intensive, “just like building a bridge. A city cannot operate” without the upgrades “in this day and age”.

Assistant City Manager Rich Noll said “we believe it qualifies” for the stimulus help. The contract will be awarded to one of two electronics companies, though neither one is based in Missouri.

“It’s not like pouring concrete or laying steel”, he said, “But a lot of individuals are part of this kind of project. Engineers, installers, maintenance workers”.

Noll said elected officials in Missouri have been supportive of the proposal.

But Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalek, a critic of the size of the stimulus bill, said the emergency radio project does not belong on the list. “It’s not a legitimate request”, he told CNN. He said the city should use its own money to buy the system.

“Is that something you couldn’t possibly do without the stimulus money? The answer is no”.

Abouhalek argued city officials are “jumping on the bandwagon”, when they should have been setting aside money to buy the new system. He called it a “game of financial gotcha, They just want the (federal government) to pay for it.” He said the cost spread out over several years could be paid for with bonds.

The columnist said the project is “important, but it’s not something building for the future.” He said the project would do little to create work in the Kansas City area, a key to the stimulus package. “I’d rather have the money go towards a bridge with local jobs.”

The non-partisan group Concord Coalition has been closely watching developments on the bill and requests around the nation. The watchdog group last week outlined criteria it wanted to see used for spending to bolster the economy. They wrote “Fiscal responsibility means investing wisely in projects that will contribute positively to economic growth, and being willing to pay for those worthwhile projects over time. On both fronts, policymakers should not confuse the size of our economic problems with the benefits of various policy options”.

Concord Coalition Executive Director Robert Bixby said there is “tension between spending the money and spending the money wisely.” Nationally, he said, it is a “politicians’ delight. You have an excuse to spend money and cut taxes at the same time.

But the Kansas City project, like much of the stimulus debate, comes with no easy answers. Bixby said it was a “worthwhile thing, something all communities will need but doesn’t sound like a” provider of jobs.

He said an argument can be made that the $30 million contract and work connected to the project “could be stimulus. For the broader economy, it doesn’t matter where the jobs are.”

“You don’t spend willy-nilly”, he said, “but it’s not like a study of moose calls effect on the crops.” Unlike many projects on local lists, he said the radio system is not “inherently silly. A lot of stuff that gets in there, you have to shake your head. Why would anybody put this in with a straight face, thinking it would stimulate the economy. A lot of parasites are hitching a ride.”

Kansas City is looking at other options to pay for the radio system if they don’t get the stimulus money. It is one of many complicated budget issues they, like most cities, are trying to solve as the economy further tightens money.

Filed under: Economy • Unemployment
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. LaVerne

    I think rushing a decision of this magnitude is irresponsible. I agree that the stimulus package should be broken down into manageable sections. We have heard about billions and trillions so long that I don't think the average person has any idea of what kind of problem we will be leaving for your children and grandchildren.

    To put the stimulus package into perspective, it is almost a trillion dollars:

    What's a trillion dollars?
    A trillion dollars = $1,000,000,000,000.
    That's 12 zeroes to the left of the decimal point. A trillion is a million million dollars.

    One trillion dollars would stretch nearly from the earth to the sun. It would take a military jet flying at the speed of sound, reeling out a roll of dollar bills behind it, 14 years before it reeled out one trillion dollar bills.

    "One million seconds comes out to be about 11½ days. A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. I like to say that I have a pretty good idea what I'll be doing a million seconds from now, no idea what I'll be doing a billion seconds from now, and an excellent idea of what I'll be doing a trillion seconds from now."

    If you had gone into business on the day Jesus was born, and your business lost a million dollars a day, day in and day out, 365 days a year, it would have taken you until October 2737 to lose a trillion dollars.

    February 6, 2009 at 9:22 pm |
  2. Ted

    The "stimulus" is not the answer to any of our problems. in Capitalism, the strong survive.

    If Kansas City needs a new radio system they should tax the people that fire department is protecting in order to pay for it.

    If the federal government is going to give out money to the cities and states, why are we paying state and local taxes?

    February 6, 2009 at 8:59 pm |
  3. Jeff Fort Lauderdale

    If the state of the nation is in such bad shape, why are all of the add
    ons a part of this bill. I see no jobs coming down the road for the average American from this mountain of Debt that wont work. We are
    digging a bigger hole.......

    February 6, 2009 at 8:53 pm |
  4. Bill Depp

    The Republicans lost and their theories on this stimulus are as good as the policies of the last 8 years! If this plan involved a tax break for big oil or for banks it would be just fine but for the middle class nothing. The Govt should spend more than 900 billion. It would take about 2.9 trillion to get us off oil and in doing so would stimulate the economy as well. We also have to take care of the failing infrastructure and by building new roads and even fire dept radio systems we improve our country and it is an investment into consumers confidence as well. How about the Democrats pass it and screw the Republicans states....they don't want it anyway so say the Republicans so don't give their states a dime. They actually have David Vitter standing up for them! Their moral leader I guess when he's not out buying hookers...they are a joke! Trying to save taxpayers money....my arse, they are just out to block anything Democratic.

    February 6, 2009 at 8:49 pm |
  5. xuan

    why is there so many so-call stimulus plan? but not real actual solution to the problem. i think we should let all the company who screw-up just died off like the dinosaur's. whoever is left standing will have to evolved into something stronger and better if they want to survive. all this free give away is not helping people to change their ways it is just giving them an excuse to stop succeeding and saying to themselves that failure is the best option because the payoff is so much better.

    chandler, az

    February 6, 2009 at 8:20 pm |
  6. Jenna

    I guess this is what you get for voting for Obama.

    February 6, 2009 at 8:12 pm |
  7. Stephen

    Economic stimulus consists of spending. That is precisely what stimulates the economy. It is a way to turn the governments ability to borrow money into jobs and economic opportunities. The measure of good, or efficient stimulus spending is that it be absolutely necessary spending, something that needs to get done at some point, not something we're only doing because we want to spend money. This is absolutely necessary spending. Not having fire safety costs the national economy more than having fire safety does.

    Repairing neglected infrastructure is a good thing for the economy and for the nation.

    Whether this radio system should really cost $30 million is a separate issue. I don't know, but that sounds high.

    February 6, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  8. Perry

    >>William Duval February 6th, 2009 6:18 pm ET
    >>How the hell can a “radio system” for a medium size city cost 30 million dollars??

    Seriously. A $30m radio system? I don't know the ins and outs of firefighting, but I have to assume you could build a system using the internet and cell phones for 1% of that amount.

    February 6, 2009 at 7:41 pm |
  9. Adali Arana, Seattle, WA

    While I agree that this story does bring to light crucial concerns, its not new. This is going on all across the country and has been for many years.

    These Issues and only now come into the light when a $900,000,000,000 or $780,000,000,000 check gets waved around making everyone reach out for a piece. Senator Feinstein of California put it best I beleive,


    If there is something in the bill that does not create JOBS for the long term.. it does not belong in the bill.!!!!

    ANY SPENDING even if its trully needed in the country but not related to creating jobs, including many of what has been argued on the senate floor over the past few days.. that does NOT create jobs does not belong in the bill..

    Those issues can all be handled in other bills.. this is not the time and the place.. I fear some individuals have it in their head that this is "The ONLY bill that will be passed all year" subsequently stuffing it with everything they can.. I am aghast at how willing some people are to rush a bill that nears


    not only should this bill be perfect... it should be only passed with overwhelming support. Because you're only going to get one shot at it.. because we're going to be paying for this, and our kids, and kids yet to be born, they get to pay for this..

    February 6, 2009 at 7:34 pm |
  10. Elmer

    The simplistic view of this is that Mr. Obama has no executive level experience. When Reagan and Clinton entered office with similar economic circumstances (and in reality, the 1981 era was by far mcuh much worse than this), they met with Congressional leaders from both parties for weeks, hammering out the compromise. They both by the way were governors and thus knew this process was a necessary one. Obama – he tries to jam something down everyone's throat with speeches. He is not going to succeed using that tactic. He needs to work, not talk. That speech to the House Dems became as close to an evangelistic sermon as I have ever seen a President give. Watch the replay and and stop drinking the Kool-aid. Call hiom and tell him to get to work and stop talking.

    February 6, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  11. JANIE

    Congress do something, don't sit on your nubs up there. Until 1/2 of the USA are unemployed or have lost there homes then are they going to stop the pissing contest! I am sick of who is the biggest over the years. The people that we trust that will do something for the Americans don't really understand because most of the people they know it hasn't affected some of there sons and daughters or even so, they can afford to bail them out, the average American can't afford that for our sons and daughters, I say the HEL_ WITH THIS PISSING WAR!

    February 6, 2009 at 7:06 pm |
  12. Dianne, Millington, TN.

    Sen. McCain is still trying to be President of these United States. He is trying to control and is controlling the Republicans. He (McCain) has not intentions of working with Pres. Obama. He is going to try and cause as much confusion as possible in the Senate. But, the people have spoke and chose Pres. Obama. Those Republicans, if they don't wake up, will lose elections next time around (BIG TIME). The governors are asking their senators to come together. Pres. Obama is being monitored with his every move. He is the first President in history that has just taken office been there less than three weeks and being monitored, having to give news briefs everyday and held accountable before he can do anything. The media, the people are not trying to give him a chance before he even starts. The Senate (Republicans) house is a DISGRACE to the people that elected them. They have not lesson learned yet. As, I stated the people have spoken and elected Pres. Obama and everyone wants "CHANGE" except the Republicans (especially McCain), which is causing our condition to get worst. Nobody challenged Bush when he was spending the monies when he was in office, which started this problem. If someone would have been monitoring Bush and Chaney this could have been stopped before it began.

    February 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm |
  13. LF

    Has any of the Republican Senators mentioned reviewing the Senate's budget so as to develop some cost-cutting measures at the Senate? What about cutting the Senator's salaries and benefits? Would not these Senators be willing to share the pains of American people, who had placed in their respective offices? Who among them would be the first to say, "Start the cutting on the Hill!"

    February 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm |
  14. Mike

    The country is facing a trillion dollar shortfall in demand this year and another trillion dollar shortfall next year. As a result, almost any government spending stateside is stimulative because it replaces money that consumers, businesses, and local/state governments are unable to spend.

    In this particular case, replacing the fire department's radio system is necessary for public safety. If the local government cannot afford it they would be forced to cut heads or raise taxes in order to make this essential expendure (both drags on the economy). Federal government funds in this case match very closely with Larry Summer's definition of what constitutes good stimulus: it should be timely, targeted, and temporary. In this case, it immediately allows purchase of radio equipment (helping to preserve jobs at the radio manufacturer), and it employs people needed to install and configure the equipment. Meanwhile, the money for the contractors gets spent in the local community, offering a multiplier effect.

    Yes, in normal circumstances the local community would be 100% responsible for these expenses, but these are not normal circumstances and the whole point of a stimulus bill is to provide additional funds throughout the country that can be used to boost the eonomy.

    February 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm |
  15. Joyce

    The government can't fix this.

    It is the result of millions of decisions made by millions of Americans. Decisions about credit, about consumption, and about what kind of lifestyle to live. Bankers lent badly because they profited. Hedge fund managers profited because they felt they deserved it. CEO's made out like bandits because we let them, and then they felt it was their due.

    This stimulous package is desperate and immature and irresponsible. These people think they are God and it's their lot to pull us out of this. Give them some humility, please. Convince them that they cannot fix this and what is being proposed will only make it worse.

    Alas, no one will listen. They will pass an ineffective stimulous bill, and the economy will tank anyway....and the legacy we leave our children might just make them pull together enough to change this ineffective governmental structure.

    February 6, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  16. William Duval

    How the hell can a "radio system" for a medium size city cost 30 million dollars??

    February 6, 2009 at 6:18 pm |
  17. Annie Kate

    Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be "right" for the stimulus package. This is an example, though, of why the stimulus package should be broken into various pieces and enacted separately – one to stimulate the economy, another to fix infrastructure including this radio system, another to build a green America, etc. I think making the bills smaller and having a stated scope that they must adhere to will help in not having a lot of pork go through the system. It will also make the projects easier to maintain accountability for.

    One thing, also, there is a lot of negativity on this blog right now. I understand that people are frustrated, but Obama has been in office for less than a month. How can any President be judged on just a month's service? Give him a break and some time before you criticize.

    February 6, 2009 at 5:34 pm |
  18. Kevin Cody, Williamston, MI

    Here's the thing: mayors and governors have too long ensured their own popularity by relying on the federal government so that they can appear to lower taxes *and* keep make improvements to their cities or states (in addition to the usual services), all while miraculously keeping their budget balanced.

    Mayors and governors: man (or woman) up, and have the guts to either tax your constituents, or explain why they'll have to see cutbacks.

    And voters: educate yourselves (and in fairness, I had to have this explained to me fairly recently) – if your state lowers taxes and improves its services and claims a "balanced budget," it's probably too good to be true! You're just either paying for it at a federal level, or passing it on to future generations via the national debt!

    February 6, 2009 at 5:14 pm |
  19. Juli

    This is NOT stimulus-worthy. I really hope the stimulus doesn't pass. I think businesses need major tax breaks so they can get back to work and hire people back. But that's not my point.

    How about the electronics companies bidding for the radio replacement make a deal with the government–they donate the radios to the municipality, and they receive a tax break in return?

    February 6, 2009 at 5:02 pm |
  20. Matt

    Makes me wonder what the cash straped states will do next year when there is no money coming from the fed.
    Yet another bandaid from our elected officials, deny the reality of the moment and live on the income of tomorrow, seems to me that is how the mortgage fiasco started.

    February 6, 2009 at 4:49 pm |
  21. David

    I think the bigger question is should tax payers from all states pay for the mistakes made by city bugeters?? Tax me for highway systems but don't make me pay for mistakes made in cities I don't live in.

    February 6, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  22. diamond

    that is the fault at the local level not the federal.. i live in a small township in michigan (dewitt twp) and wehave state of the art fire protection. the folks in charge thought that it was more important than some other things... thats whats wrong with (osamas) stimulous it will be wasted on art projects and kool-aid people projects.

    February 6, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  23. Grangerman

    New York Times
    Published: May 17, 2008

    WATERTOWN, S.D. — Senator Barack Obama responded sharply on Friday to attacks on his foreign policy, linking President Bush and Senator John McCain as partners in “the failed policies” of the past seven years and criticizing them for “hypocrisy, fear peddling, fear mongering.”

    The above is rhetoric Obama often voiced during his campaign. "We'll change the tactics of fear mongering and bring hope to the American People."
    I guess Obama's recent speeches in the last 24 hrs. have nothing to do with "hypocrisy, fear peddling and fear mongering."
    This guy is no leader...he's a talker that does not have a clue what to do but spend our hard earned money.

    What kind of leader stands before his constituents and bleeds fear, doom and gloom? This guy is trying to push something down our throats and the American people better take a good long look at what this guy is doing. (Not to mention the fact that we had to spend millions of dollars last night so the President could ride in Air Force One.) Why couldn't they have met in Washington where everyone was anyway. This is just one example of the hypocrisy.

    America, Enjoy the fruits of your decisions. Elections have consequences, sit buy and watch your hard earned money be thrown to the wind.

    February 6, 2009 at 4:25 pm |
  24. Nathan

    This is a local responsibility, and not something that the entire nation should pay for.

    The President has rebranded the Stimulus Package, essentially using this to implement his overall agenda.

    I am surprised and disappointed that he is using the tactics of fear to sell his package. This isn't the change I was looking for.

    February 6, 2009 at 4:23 pm |
  25. Isabel Abreu, Brazil

    The safety of the population is necessary, but I agree that really doesn't fit the set of measures of the Stimulus Package.

    Enlarge the aid-unemployment and medical coverage public make more sense in my (somewhat) understand.

    An aside: Here in Brazil we have a vision that is all (Hmmm...) perfect in the US and to any emergency, in a matter of minutes, come one, two, three, four, five, six, I know there many firemen, police or paramedics.
    Maybe I have seen much to show "Emergency 911" and
    has a vision distorted of reality.

    February 6, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  26. Cindy

    This is a frightening story indeed. To think that because of an old radio system many lives could have been lost. But saying that I do have to say that the city needs to come up with it's own way to pay for a new system. I mean they did say that they can use bonds spread out in the next few years to cover it...so why aren't they? Why do they want free money to cover it!? That's what's wrong with this nation...too many people are wanting a hand out and not wanting to do for themselves.

    Yes...we need a stimulus package to get us back on our feet but not at the expense of wasting money. I mean why should we insure bees or do another program about giving out contraception when one already exists? That is wasteful to me! Especially when we all will have to pay it back in the end! Nothing is ever free!!


    February 6, 2009 at 11:13 am |
  27. Barb

    Nope, not an item for the stimulus, but definitely a dereliction of duty by the Kansas City, Missouri government for sure. Wonder what retreat or luxury outing those congressmen went on instead of making sure that state took care of this need?

    February 6, 2009 at 11:05 am |