Montana's Stimulus-Funded Tennis Courts Draw Hypocritical Volleys

The approval of $49,410 in federal stimulus funds to install rubber-tiled tennis courts in the city of Bozeman, Mont. has sparked political infighting in the state of Montana and is furthering the debate about whether or not the country's stimulus funds are actually being put to good use.Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer says the move made by Bozeman City Commission Monday is a terrible misuse of government funds, not "the intent of Congress," and not his intent. While Bozeman City Commissioner Jeff Krauss claims it's the will of his constituents and, when it comes right down to it, a move specifically approved by the governor and state legislature.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%What's more, says Krauss, the construction of the tennis courts in the city's Bogert Park is no different from the funds approved for expenditure in the capitol where Schweitzer lives. In Helena, $498,776 in federal stimulus money is being put into park improvement (and that's only for the first phase of a three-phase project). One of the uses: painting a mural in Memorial Park. Another: installing sound-proof tiles in a band shell. Fencing. A trail system. And yet, says Krauss, there is a reporter from the The Wall Street Journalon Fox News, calling his town's use of stimulus funds "frivolous."

"It's not frivolous," says Krauss. "When we introduced this in the fall, a bunch of citizens came in to say how much they supported repairing our recreational facilities. It's all about getting these kids and prying them away from the video game controls. We're having a big crisis over health care in this country. Every time you can get a kid away from the electronic entertainment and outside recreating, that's a good thing." Another project on the books for Bogert Park: a climbing rock.

Governor Slams Town for Project He Approved

The $49,410 is barely a drop in the federal bucket. Even in Bozeman, stimulus funds register at $621,000; for the state of Montana, it's $1.05 billion. In September, reporters were putting Schweitzer on the defensive, complaining that barely more than 10% of the stimulus money allotted to the state had been spent. So the governor put local officials in his cities, towns and counties to work coming up with ways to use the money.

In Bozeman, the commission agreed to spend over $120,000 on improvements to Bogert Park -- including those tennis courts -- and sent the governor's office a list of ways they planned to use the money. Included were improvements to parks, installation of curb ramps so that handicapped citizens could access city sidewalks, and money for a waste water treatment plant. A bill authorizing the projects went through the legislative process, was debated by the state's elected representatives, was voted into law and was signed by Gov. Schweitzer.

In an ironic twist, Krauss said he received a letter from a state agency in October, with a picture of the governor in a hard hat on the letterhead, congratulating the city on the approval of its projects. The City Commission went ahead and found a contractor from Minneapolis that could provide a really resilient court surface, one that would last for 15 years. "Everything in the world isn't made in Montana," said Krauss, referring to complaints about sending some of his city's money out of state. "Locals are going to do a lot of the work."

Park is Well-Loved, But Needs Repairs

Bogert Park is an unlikely focus for all this ire. It's a dilapidated park in an old part of town. A farmers market is held there in the spring, summer and fall (even if it snows, it's packed with families). During Montana's famously cold winters, city kids use its picturesque old skating rink. Kids love the playground there, even if the paint is peeling. Sadly, the tennis courts are "trashed."

It's easy to find problems with the federal stimulus plan. Did you know $25 million is going toward repairs at the Smithsonian Institution? Another $50 million will be spent on repairs of monuments and memorials in cemeteries. In every city and town, in every state, someone who is looking to criticize could surely find $10,000 or $50,000 used in a way that is not obviously and directly going to change someone's life.

But, as Krauss points out, a big part of city life -- whether in Bozeman, Helena, Richmond, Va., or New York City -- is parks and recreation facilities. No one would begrudge Arthur Ashe the city courts he played on as a child, he says. So who could genuinely object to giving the children of Bozeman their chance to practice their way to a pro tennis career; or even just enjoy a few hours running around chasing a ball with a racket in the greatest of great outdoors?

No one could really begrudge them that. Could they?
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