This year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bought Edward Koorse a new Ford pickup truck.
If terrorists attack somewhere near Cattaraugus County, where Mr. Koorse is the director of emergency services, he will use the $27,000 truck to haul a huge trailer full of the decontamination equipment that the state bought him last year. But that scenario doesn’t seem very likely in the quiet farmland of southwestern New York State.
So in the meantime, Mr. Koorse uses the pickup to drive to work.
“I went no frills,” he said of his vehicle. “It doesn’t have the fancy-schmancy stuff.”
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Koorse and dozens of officials like him in rural counties around the state have found themselves with more federal money than they know how to spend on their modest counterterror needs. The Observer reviewed the three main 2004 grant programs, based on figures from the state Office of Public Safety and interviews with emergency-management officials in 32 of the 57 counties outside the city. The results showed that most local officials spent the money filling existing needs with doubtful connections to stopping Al Qaeda.
For example, Ontario County (pop. 100,000) is purchasing a climate-controlled mobile command post, said Jeffrey Harloff, director of the county’s emergency-management office. Mr. Harloff will buy the vehicle with his share of the Department of Homeland Security’s main grant to the state. How will he use the command post? It depends on who’s asking.
“If it’s the federal government asking me, it is for the intended purpose of W.M.D. incidents and HazMat incidents,” Mr. Harloff said. “In reality, we’re going to use it for everyday stuff in our office.”
New York’s elected officials often complain about the way the Department of Homeland Security distributes money. They repeat the finding that America spends more money per capita securing Wyoming than protecting New York State. Quietly, however, New York officials in both parties have created a local copy of Congress’ spending priorities, distributing money to places like remote Wyoming County.
Less than 60 percent of federal homeland-security funding sent to New York State this year has ended up in New York City, the scene of the most damaging attack in American history. That left nearly $50 million to spread around the rest of the state. The state government also shaved the maximum allowable share, 20 percent, off grants targeted specifically at urban areas.
Those priorities helped free up $65,000 for Wyoming County in western New York, which spent the money largely on radio equipment that was out of the county budget’s reach. “We can use it on anything [from] a large mutual-aid fire to a terrorist attack,” said James Reger, the county’s director of emergency services.
Wyoming County’s choice to upgrade its communications system was a popular one, but local officials had fought for, and won, wide discretion in choosing how to spend the federal money. Officials in Yates and Madison counties said they had strengthened defenses against illicit drug labs. Cattaraugus, Sullivan, Erie, Clinton and other counties bought pickup trucks to haul around the huge packages of equipment for nuclear, biological and chemical attacks that the state gave them the previous year. Others are using federal funds for more exotic gear, like a robot in Chautauqua County.
Local officials say that both of New York’s U.S. Senators have backed their quest to spend federal grants on basic law-enforcement needs.
“This [flexibility] didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Greg Brunelle, the deputy director of Jefferson County’s Office of Fire and Emergency Management, which spent most of its $250,000 equipment grant on a new paging system for police, fire and emergency medical workers. “Senator Clinton and Senator Schumer’s office were getting bombarded with calls from my office and other offices saying, ‘You’ve got to free this money.’”
Governor George Pataki, whose Office of Public Security has developed a formula based on population and risk, made a conscious decision early on to spread post-9/11 funds around the state. That pattern began to take shape in the weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, when Mr. Pataki was widely ridiculed for larding a request for federal disaster relief with goodies like a high-speed rail link between Schenectady and New York City.
Echoing Mr. Pataki’s priorities, Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been pressing for federal homeland-security grants outside New York City. Mrs. Clinton, long an advocate of extra support for “first responders,” has been particularly vocal on this front, and the apparent conflict between her national and local stances has raised some eyebrows.
“She’s been running around popularizing demands for more money in New York City in between her appearances upstate, where she hands out checks to people who need it far less,” said E.J. McMahon, a fiscal-policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. “It’s just a classic boondoggle, and when you think about how the city could spend that money, it’s really galling.”
A thick 2003 report from Mrs. Clinton’s office, for example, reported unsurprisingly that “every single community stated that it had critical homeland security needs,” and went on to highlight those demands from a full 32 cities, towns and villages, from New York City to Cheektowaga.
Three months ago, on Sept. 30, a press release from Mrs. Clinton’s office read: “Senator Clinton Announces $400,000 Grant to Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse to Help Design Emergency Preparedness Plans in Case of Terrorist Attack.”
Ironically, Mrs. Clinton has also been among the sharpest critics of the Bush administration’s spending priorities.
“The political reality is that they don’t have a constituency in big cities,” Mrs. Clinton recently told Time. “They have been very resistant to doing the kind of national planning that would rationalize [the spending].”
Officials managed to contain their outrage, however, when New York City didn’t even top the state’s own per capita homeland-security funding distribution in 2004. That distinction went to Albany County, each of whose residents benefited from $23.90 in federal homeland-security protection in 2004. New York City received less than half that amount on a per capita basis, $11.34. (That calculation is based on state data on the distribution of the three largest categories of homeland-security grants: the Urban Areas Security Initiative, the State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program.)
Just as Washington, D.C., is by far the best-funded city in the nation when it comes to homeland security, the state capital will be the best-funded county in the state. (It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Rensselaer County, the home of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, also ranks high, with $5.41 in federal homeland-security spending per capita.)
Albany’s $7 million windfall has gone to several ends. Some of the money has been spent strengthening the defenses at “key locations,” said Mike Perrin, the director of operations in the Albany County Executive’s office. Those locations include Albany International Airport and the Pepsi Arena, home to minor-league hockey’s Albany River Rats. Other money went into training county health-care workers to respond to bioterror attacks, and some went into improving radio communications between and among the county’s police and fire departments.
“We’re still picking the low-hanging fruit of what obviously needs to be improved, particularly in terms of communications systems,” Mr. Perrin said.
Albany, while better-funded than most, was typical in finding ways to use its homeland-security funding toward more general improvements that have no clear connection to counterterrorism. Across the state, cash-strapped local governments found plausible ways to spend grants from the Department of Homeland Security on equipment and training that they needed anyway.
“Fifty thousand dollars to me is like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one,” said Glen Miller, the director of emergency management in tiny Yates County. He spent it on hazardous-materials training for volunteer firefighters, on a four-wheeler for getting off the county’s sparse roads and on a laptop computer. “It’s a big shot. There’s stuff I’ve wanted to do for 10 to 15 years.”
Tiny Yates County, with a population of just 25,000, is farm country-just the sort of place that New York’s elected representatives have long complained gets too much homeland-security funding.
“The administration continues to insist on sending a disproportionate amount of security funds to states with more cows than people. It remains a pork-barrel program, which is a shame,” said U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney in a Dec. 3 press release.
These New York officials have fallen silent when it comes to upstate pork, however, so much of the federal funding has found its way to New York’s own farm country-places like Yates and Ontario counties, where officials have been creative in their definitions of “homeland security.” Ontario County’s Mr. Harloff, for example, has already had occasion to use a pickup truck he bought, in theory, for pulling his county’s state-bought decontamination trailer to the scene of a terrorist attack.
This wasn’t exactly a typical homeland-security exercise.
“We had a large farm trailer that was hooked up to a manure spreader that was parked on a hill. They were fixing fences so the cattle didn’t get out,” he recalled. But the tractor had a defect and the equipment rolled down the hill, spilling manure and dumping diesel fuel into a culvert system.
“We did use the pickup truck to transport absorbent, the pads and some booms” that were used to absorb the diesel spill, he said.
Mr. Harloff made good-if unorthodox-use of his grant, but others have found it harder to spend the unasked-for federal contribution to their civil defenses.
“It is difficult for us to spend the $75,000,” said Lyle Jones, the emergency-services coordinator for Otsego County (pop. 62,000), in the middle of the state. Mr. Jones’ troops consist largely of volunteer firefighters, along with the city of Oneonta’s small police and fire departments. The top terrorist target in the county is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The money and supplies started flowing in soon after Sept. 11, and they included the massive decontamination and hazardous-materials trailer, which posed the first problem for Mr. Jones.
“We had no vehicle to tow this trailer that we were bestowed with,” he said.
Mr. Jones used some federal money to buy a truck. But his volunteers are too busy to spend much time training, and he’s unsure how to spend the rest.
“We do not have the people or the staff to be able really to do the planning,” he said.
Many upstate officials, on the contrary, argue that the federal funding of their basic law-enforcement needs makes sense, since responding to terrorist attacks isn’t that different from responding to other crimes or disasters.
“Our perspective is that the metropolitan area should be building their infrastructure the same way we’re building ours,” said Jefferson County’s Mr. Brunelle. “If you’re prepared, if you can handle the day-to-day emergencies and you’re prepared to handle the big natural disasters, then you can handle the terrorist attack, too.”
Members of both parties have begun to voice concern that much of the new security spending is essentially wasted. Urban Democrats have argued that major cities and high-risk installations, like nuclear and chemical plants, should get virtually all of the federal funding. Now conservatives, like the Manhattan Institute’s Mr. McMahon and Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute, are also raising questions about this vast new pool of government spending.
Ms. de Rugy authored a report that considered the wisdom of passing federal first-responder funding to the states to spend as they see fit. It found “questionable uses of terrorism preparedness grants” across the country. Lake County in Tennessee bought a defibrillator to keep on hand at college basketball games. North Pole, Alaska (pop. 1,570), spent $557,400 on “homeland security” rescue and communications equipment. Grand Forks, N.D. (pop. 70,000), bought more biochemical suits than it has police officers.
“Because most of the money is allocated on a political basis rather than a sound cost-benefit analysis, much of the new spending will not result in sound security,” Ms. de Rugy concluded. “In other words, the security we are getting against terrorism is likely to be ineffective, yet comes at an enormous expense.”
The Department of Homeland Security budget for 2005, passed earlier this month, has corrected some of the more egregious features of the 2004 budget. Albany, for example, has been dropped from the list of high-threat cities, much to the distress of its County Executive’s office. New York City’s grant (less the state deduction) has shot up dramatically, from $37.6 million to $171.1 million, according to figures from Ms. Maloney’s office. And the general pool of money flowing through the Governor’s office under the two main programs has dropped by nearly 40 percent, from over $103 million to $57.4 million.
Nevertheless, millions of dollars will continue to flow to places like Otsego County, where officials like Mr. Jones, the emergency-services coordinator, will continue to marvel at its arrival-and wonder what to do with it.
“Terrorism in general, and in this situation, is not a problem we can sit back and throw money at and have it go away,” Mr. Jones said. “It just seems like a tremendous waste of funding.”
- Additional reporting by Michael Calderone and Jascha Hoffman
Follow Ben Smith via RSS.