A little over two years ago, San Diego, Calif., received a $74,394 federal homeland security grant to buy 55 large screen televisions for a training system. But officials there neglected to purchase the video training package to show on the screens. When U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspectors showed up to see how the money had been spent, all 55 televisions were tuned to the same local TV station.
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, Tex., regional government authorities used $250,000 of federal funds to acquire a first-responder trailer that proved useless because it was too large and poorly designed. And first-responder officials in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area used a $700,000 homeland security grant to buy software to evaluate area law enforcement criminal data files. But the software didn’t work properly, and officials had to spend an additional $1.3 million on new software.
“bang for the buck” the government is
getting with homeland security grant spending.
While wasteful homeland security spending has declined from what it was in the wake of the Sept, 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when Congress lavished billions of dollars on projects of dubious value to safeguard the country, experts say there is still considerable waste and misuse of funds.
Anne Reynolds, assistant inspector general for audits at DHS, who supervises the state-by-state audits, said the problem of wasteful spending has “stabilized,” but that it would be an exaggeration to say that “things have gotten better.”
“We are not finding the problems we were finding initially,” Reynolds said in an interview with The Fiscal Times. She added that it is still hard to measure how much “bang for the buck” the government is getting with homeland security grant spending. She said more criteria are needed.
“You would not want to see a disaster, but that’s the only way to measure it without objective measures,” she said.
Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center in Virginia, and an expert on homeland security spending, said that Congress and the administration continue to “come up with a reason that we have to do more and spend more” on homeland security.
With an eye on the $1.5 trillion deficit and diminished resources, Congress has ordered the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to closely monitor the agency’s $55 billion in annual spending. Of particular concern is the $842 million that is allocated annually for the “States Homeland Security” program– the source of most of the grant-based funding.
While there are only a handful of large or strategically located cities that experts view as prime targets for terrorist attacks – including New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and some West Coast and Gulf Coast areas – virtually every city and county in the country has sought a share of the homeland security pot of money.
Pole, a town in Alaska (population 1,570).
Five years ago, the American Enterprise Institute issued a scathing report on the enormous waste in government spending on homeland security programs. The report highlighted outlandish and costly outlays in rural or other out-of-the-way areas that seemed unlikely targets for terrorists.
Among the misspending cites: nearly $600,000 awarded to North Pole, a town in Alaska (population 1,570) for homeland security rescue and communications equipment; and $30,000 used by officials in Lake County, Tenn., to help a high school buy a defibrillator to have on hand for a basketball tournament.
The Fiscal Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security in order to obtain the names of the cities cited in the reports on wasteful spending, which initially were referred to only in generalities. Local officials say that some of the problems cited in the reports have been solved or mitigated.
In the case of San Diego’s purchase of 55 TV sets--without the necessary training packages--, officials have used the televisions for “more open source monitoring to provide the most immediate and current information to the field,” California Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jay Alan said in an email. The equipment currently is being kept at the San Diego Regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, he said.
As for the software in Los Angeles/Long Beach, Alan said the area had attempted to remedy the situation by supplementing the original software purchase with compatible programs.
In the case of the oversized Texas trailer, Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that since the audit, the regional council of governments used the trailer for a rapid response exercise, and may make it available for other training exercises.
ballooned from about $15 billion
in 2001 to about $48 billion in 2011.
De Rugy, who wrote the highly critical AEI report, said that the steadily growing homeland security budget assures continued growth in spending on projects that don’t keep the nation safer. According to the OMB’s historical tables, homeland security spending has ballooned from about $15 billion in 2001 to about $48 billion in 2011.
The massive increase in spending is understandable in light of the nation’s response to the historic attacks on New York and Washington. But in recent years both Congress and the administration have begun to question the outlays. In the budget resolution approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama for the remainder of this fiscal year, negotiators agreed to cut $784 million from homeland security spending
At the root of the problem is the initial formula for Homeland Security spending, approved by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that calls for spending in all 50 states, eight U.S. territories and in 50 major urban areas.
According to de Rugy’s report, the formula benefitted smaller states like Wyoming over larger states on a per capita basis. Her report said that Wyoming, for example, has only .17 percent of the nation’s population, but gets .85 percent of the homeland security grants. “That works out to $37.74 per capita for Wyoming, while New York State, arguably a better target for terrorists, gets $5.41 per capita,” she said. De Rugy said that Washington is the only city that is simultaneously among the top ten grant recipients and among the 10 areas most at risk of a terrorist attack.
Since the promulgation of the initial rules for distributing homeland security grants, two other steps have been taken to clarify spending that some experts say operate at cross purposes.
First, the government has expanded the definition of what qualifies as “homeland security” spending to include such things as natural disasters, large hazardous material incidents unrelated to terrorism and any other kind of “mass casualty” incident. That has made it easier for cities and localities that aren’t considered to be terrorist targets to justify applying for homeland security grants. At the same time, the government has boosted the requirement for auditing federal homeland security grants. The DHS inspector general has been ordered to audit spending in every state, city and territory by 2014.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., said the current formula encourages sending federal grants to “places whether they need it or not.”
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