Anti-Terrorism Funds Buy Wide Array of Pet Projects
Some of Region's Unused Millions Could Be Lost
By Jo Becker, Sarah Cohen and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 23, 2003; Page A01
Two years after Congress approved a massive infusion of cash to help gird the Washington area against terrorism, much of the $324 million remains unspent or is funding projects with questionable connections to homeland security.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, lawmakers doled out the money quickly, with few restrictions and vague guidelines. Left to interpret needs on their own -- and with little regional coordination -- cash-strapped local and state officials plugged budget holes, spent millions on pet projects and steered contracts to political allies.
The District funded a politically popular jobs program, outfitted police with leather jackets and assessed environmental problems on property prime for redevelopment. In Maryland, the money is buying Prince George's County prosecutors an office security system. In Virginia, a small volunteer fire department spent $350,000 on a custom-made fire boat. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments used some of the money for janitorial services.
The Washington Post traced the path of the region's first wave of homeland security aid from its distribution through its final use, a trail that has been largely unexamined by federal regulators. The analysis included a review of contracts, grant proposals and purchasing databases obtained through open records laws as well as more than 100 interviews.
The findings represent the first detailed evidence of how jurisdictions are spending a major new stream of federal dollars. Since that first allotment, Congress has approved at least $180 million in additional grants to the region, and more is on the way.
In many ways, the funds have helped the Washington area become better prepared than it was when terrorists struck. The region has earmarked at least $63 million -- about one-fifth of the total -- for compatible radio systems, long considered critical so rescuers from different jurisdictions can communicate with each other in an emergency.
Police, firefighters and public health workers have undergone disaster training and are better equipped to handle conventional attacks and weapons of mass destruction. They have more gear to protect them, more ambulances and firetrucks and more heavy equipment to defuse bombs or locate victims buried beneath rubble. Local governments have at their disposal new blueprints on how to respond to a terrorist attack.
But critical needs remain unaddressed, according to federal assessments and interviews. Many of the region's hospitals are already strained and, without adding beds and personnel, would be overwhelmed if thousands needed medical attention in an emergency. In the District, hospital officials estimate that just 400 beds could be freed in a disaster.
Some police officers are still waiting for basic protective gear. Public health labs swamped by the anthrax attacks of 2001 have no additional capacity today. Most local governments have no efficient way to give instructions to residents shut off from radio and television, such as a "reverse 911" system that automatically telephones people at home. There is no comprehensive plan to unite families separated in a disaster.
James S. Gilmore III, a former governor of Virginia who heads a congressionally mandated terrorism panel, said better priorities must be set for local jurisdictions.
"If you simply fund every local desire, the demand for money is going to be so great," Gilmore said, "that you are going to break the back of the economy, which is exactly what the terrorists would like."
Congress approved the funds within 100 days of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when lawmakers were shaken by the region's chaotic response and the country and its capital seemed at their most vulnerable. The aid went out with the philosophy that because local governments knew their own needs best, they would be given wide latitude in how to spend their windfall.
But despite the urgency and the historic nature of the new anti-terrorism mission, the undertaking was beset by many of the same problems and inefficiencies as other large government programs. Slowed by inertia, purchasing rules and, in some cases, mismanagement, local and state governments have had difficulty spending the funds.
Overall, nearly 40 percent of the money remains unspent. The District, which received the bulk of the money, has spent the vast majority of it. However, it stands to lose more than $1.1 million of the $168.6 million it received because it failed to spend or sign contracts for the full amount by a Sept. 30 deadline, although city officials say that figure could decrease when a final tally is complete. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments lost $149,000. The suburbs are further behind: In Maryland and Virginia, nearly half of the $101.5 million has not been spent or promised in a contract. Unlike the District, however, Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions will not lose unspent funds because their deadlines are malleable.
District, state and county officials said they did the best they could, with little guidance, to make the region a safer place as quickly as possible. Dennis R. Schrader, who was hired this year to oversee Maryland's homeland security spending, said the money was spent "with good intentions."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company