Organizations that won broadband stimulus awards from the Rural Utilities Service could have more time to complete their projects as the result of a new extension offered by the RUS.  The agency hopes the extension will drive stimulus winners that have not yet returned funding paperwork to do so, thereby increasing the flow of stimulus dollars to the winners.

That goal is taking on increased urgency, said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan on a webinar organized by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association yesterday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the parent organization of the Rural Utilities Service.

“We have a chunk of money that has been obligated but not yet outlaid,” said Merrigan. Any time that situation occurs, she said, “I get nervous [because] laws can be changed at any moment and we might have to pivot.”

Merrigan said she has been called on the carpet at the White House and the Secretary of Agriculture’s office to answer questions about the broadband stimulus program status. Referencing a “whirlwind of budget pain in Washington,” Merrigan said, “the struggle for money has never been fiercer.”

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would return unclaimed stimulus funds to the treasury and while Merrigan said that bill would not be harmful, she said “the tone around the debate is raising red flags.”

One issue that apparently has prevented some stimulus award winners from completing the documents necessary to release funding is the tight deadline structure originally envisioned for the program. To address that concern, RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein noted on the call that the RUS has sent notice of contract modifications to stimulus winners which, if accepted by the winners, will extend the completion deadline for stimulus projects to as far as September 30, 2015.

Adelstein cautioned, however, that it is critical for stimulus winners to “review, accept and return the contract immediately.” Noting that some winners have obtained interim financing on their own, Adelstein said “the sooner we can get you money, the better.”

Any companies that won stimulus funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration should not expect to see a deadline extension, however. The reason the RUS was able to make the move is that it was given some flexibility in the appropriate Notice of Funds Availability. The NTIA apparently was not given the same flexibility but instead is limited by statute to the original project completion deadlines—and Adelstein cautioned that the new September 30, 2015 deadline for the RUS projects is equally firm because of statutory obligations.

“If I send you a check after that I could go to jail,” Adelstein said.

Merrigan urged companies that have broken ground on stimulus projects but not yet submitted bills to the RUS for payment to do so. She cautioned, however, that she is not asking stimulus winners to “work around” rules. Winners still must do their due diligence and meet environmental and historical preservation as well as contractor requirements, she said.

“We’re asking you to work with our leadership team,” said Merrigan. It’s critical that both the RUS and stimulus winners do “everything they can to move money on a faster timeline,” she said.

As Telecompetitor previously reported, strict contract terms—including the original deadline requirements—were a key reason some stimulus winners opted not to accept their awards. Perhaps the deadline extension will help ease such concerns for some winners who may have been contemplating whether or not to return their awards.