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Obama warns mayors on waste of stimulus money

Menino plans local website to track funds

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston (left) talked with Education Secretary Arne Duncan before hearing President Obama speak at the White House yesterday. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston (left) talked with Education Secretary Arne Duncan before hearing President Obama speak at the White House yesterday. (CHARLES DHARAPAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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President Obama told mayors from across the country yesterday that help is on the way - in the form of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan - but put them on notice that he will call them out if they waste the money.

Outlining the federal aid for infrastructure, schools, and police departments, Obama said the recovery package will lift the country out of recession and help you turn this crisis into opportunity, and bring our cities into the future.

In return, Obama warned, he is expecting unprecedented responsibility and accountability so that the money is spent wisely, free from politics, and free from personal agendas.

"The American people are watching. They need this plan to work. They expect to see the money that they've earned, that they've worked so hard to earn, spent in its intended purposes without waste, without inefficiency, without fraud," he toldabout 85 mayors at the White House, including Thomas M. Menino of Boston.

"We cannot tolerate business as usual - not in Washington, not in our state capitals, not in America's cities and towns," Obama continued. "If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it. And I want everybody here to be on notice that if a local government does the same, I will call them out on it and use the full power of my office and our administration to stop it."

After the meeting, several mayors told reporters that they welcomed the tough love from Obama.

"We get called out every day at the local level," said Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami, who leads the US Conference of Mayors. "We have plenty of constituents who will be doing that before the president does."

"We don't mind being called out," added Doug Palmer, mayor of Trenton, N.J. "We welcome that kind of accountability."

Menino's office said yesterday that it will create a local version of the White House website on the stimulus package so Boston residents can track how the money is being spent. The federal site is www.recovery.gov.

"Transparency and accountability are critical tools for maintaining the public's confidence in this process, and we will make sure to uphold this responsibility," Menino said in a statement.

In a telephone interview shortly after the White House gathering, Menino praised the outreach to the mayors by the Obama administration.

"This is a meeting that I've never seen happen before; we had a president, vice president, and Cabinet officials explaining to us what this money will do for us," he said. "I think the stimulus bill really is an unprecedented investment in America's cities."

Menino said he spoke to Attorney General Eric Holder about funding for Boston police and Holder assured the mayor that the stimulus money could be used to avert layoffs, although it's unclear exactly how much Boston will receive and when. The mayor said he scheduled another discussion with Holder for Tuesday, when he hopes to learn more.

With Boston facing an estimated $145 million budget shortfall this year, city officials have said teachers and police officers could face layoffs unless more revenue is found.

City officials estimated earlier this week that Boston could receive at least $125 million from the stimulus package, including $69 million for schools, $30 million for housing, and $5 million for police. But they said most of that money was directed toward infrastructure improvements.

Menino said Obama also told him how much he liked Boston. "He said, 'You have a great city there, mayor. I'll be there soon. Keep it up,'"Menino said.

Obama, who signed an executive order Thursday night creating a new White House office for urban affairs, offered a new partnership with cities.

"Welcome back to the White House," Vice President Biden declared to the applauding mayors, suggesting that they will get a friendlier reception in this administration than the previous one. "You can have our phone number and you know where we live."

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