Anti-Terrorism Funds Buy Wide Array of Pet Projects
Maryland, for instance, slashed its aid to local health departments, which are getting less this year despite the influx of federal funds, according to a legislative budget analysis. This happened despite repeated warnings from experts that the public health system is unprepared to meet new security challenges.
While such budgetary juggling may be commonplace, it has profound implications, according to Paul C. Light, a government scholar at New York University. "The problem is we're not getting a nickel's worth of extra security," he said.
Without guidance from federal or regional planners, departments from state to state and county to county have seen their missions -- and their needs -- very differently.
Col. Gerald Massengill, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, spent more than $1.4 million to arm every trooper with an M4 fully automatic rifle after he saw his troopers guarding a nuclear power plant armed only with handguns.
"I was afraid they were outgunned," said Massengill, who has since retired. The Maryland State Police superintendent, Col. Edward T. Norris, put his money into intelligence gathering, such as cell-phone tracking and surveillance equipment. He was influenced by his years as a police officer in New York City, where he saw terrorists get away because of lack of intelligence.
Rifles, he said, may be helpful to rural troopers, but they aren't directly related to the war on terrorism: "Our role is to gather intelligence."
Two agencies, two different philosophies. While Congress debates how much money is enough, local spending patterns illustrate the difficulty of pinpointing need.
For Montgomery County, it was an $800,000 mobile police command bus that one official said "will be the talk of the East Coast, with most every conceivable feature." Prince George's County officials figured they could get the same roving command capacity with four Chevy Tahoes that cost $140,000.
"I think there's a perception on the part of the public that government officials and first responders came together and said: 'Damn, here's our strategy. Here are the needs,' " said Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who chairs the Montgomery County Council's homeland security committee. "The reality is that we are only just beginning to come to grips with what the priorities are."
Without that strategy in place, the windfall created a culture of one-upmanship and giddy shopping.
As emergency operations centers throughout the region were upgraded, they were filled with new computers and furniture. Montgomery County officials spent $566,380 on audiovisual equipment -- more than twice what Fairfax County spent on similar equipment. Montgomery bought eight large-screen plasma television monitors at $20,000 each, while Prince William County firefighters opted for 36-inch sets at $695 each.
When asked why the city spent $35,000 outfitting health workers with lettered parkas, caps and polo and denim shirts, Deputy Mayor Kellems said there may have been cheaper ways to identify workers -- slip-on plastic vests, for example -- but they wouldn't have been as comfortable or durable for long emergency shifts in varying weather conditions.
The rush to buy the best often led to duplicative efforts. The Virginia State Police, for instance, is spending more than $1 million for seven armored personnel carriers that could be deployed throughout the state. Alexandria, population 128,000, wanted one of its own and is spending $144,000 to acquire it.
No one is "making the tough decisions" about regional coordination, said Jim Schwartz, director of Arlington County's emergency services and a member of a federal board that will put out equipment guidelines for localities.
"Every jurisdiction doesn't need a bomb team, but every jurisdiction needs to know where they are going to get a bomb team," he said. "The real scare for me is down the road, when we have another incident, will we have done the best job by our citizens with these moneys?"
Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company