Where money has gone
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 12:18 a.m. Monday, Sept. 5, 2011
Over the years, anti-terrorism money has wound up in surprising places: earmarked for private tour bus security, traffic signs and even in the coffers of an Illinois cut-rate luggage retailer.
Statewide, there’s been evidence of waste and slipshod accounting.
“We spread the money like a thin layer of peanut butter on toast,” said Matt Mayer, a former Department of Homeland Security official who is now an author and Heritage Foundation analyst.
State and local governments found federal money a welcome addition to their budgets, whether the gear it was supposed to buy was urgently needed or not, Mayer said.
“Pork-barrel politics became the mode of operation,” he said.
Much of this local spending took place in the early years following the Sept. 11 attacks, when Palm Beach County was the unwanted focus of national attention. Twelve of the 9/11 hijackers were linked to the county, and an anthrax attack killed a local man.
It would be hard to overstate the subsequent mind-set in that flag-waving time that led local communities to want their own anti-terrorism gear.
Palm Beach County got 595 disposable protective coveralls. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office bought a boat with grant money, though not the requested machine guns to go with it.
The sheriff’s office also was awarded more than $1.2 million over five years in homeland security grant money for bomb-sniffing dogs and salaries for their handlers. Riviera Beach cited $167,000 for cameras at water utility operations and parking areas.
The tiny town of Atlantis got traffic signs. Delray Beach received a dry suit, dive team equipment, and waterproof bags for protecting the gear. North Palm Beach was allocated $10,058 for “weapons of mass destruction supplies” in 2002, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, though the community has no records of receiving anything other than protective coveralls for its police and fire squads in that time frame.
Palm Beach received $13,800 for equipment that helps dispose of bombs – rigging that includes ropes and pulleys. “We have trained with it,” police Maj. Rick Howe said. “We have not had an incident that required its use.”
The town’s FBI-approved bomb squad is being phased out, the target of budget cuts.
Boca Raton was allocated $175,000 in 2002 for equipment including a sport utility vehicle and hazardous-materials suits, according to FDLE records. City officials don’t find any such direct grants in their records. Rather, the vehicle and other gear went to a regional domestic security task force, Boca Raton Assistant City Manager Mike Woika said.
A major charter bus service affiliated with Midnight Sun Tours of Lake Worth received a grant topping $25,000. Although it’s not clear what that money was for, the bus operation has a system that allows the company to stop a bus remotely in the event of a terrorist attack.
But local spending in particular should be based on probabilities, not worst-case scenarios, said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor and author of an upcoming book on terrorism and homeland security. True, Palm Beach could get a credible bomb threat, he said, but “it could also get hit by an asteroid.”
In fact, terrorist attacks against cities of fewer than 500,000 people are so rare that it makes little sense to spend this way, the Heritage Foundation’s Mayer said. “It’s all the idea that the threat is everywhere, which isn’t really true,” he said.
For instance, Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the kitschy mermaid attraction, was once identified as a potential terror target.
There’s little in the way of audits to track how Florida money has been handled. But in a 2007 federal review of how Florida spent homeland security money from 2002 to 2004, bean counters found money paid for custom furniture, BlackBerry hand-held devices and landscaping.
More disturbing, the report concluded, Florida did not have systems in place to make sure money was being spent appropriately.
And there were eye-openers. A project expenditure report compiled by FDLE and obtained by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting stated that Irv’s Luggage Warehouse, an Illinois discount store, received more than $1,000.
Retail music store MusicMasters was paid $1,222. American Floor Mats got $473. The Leon County School Board got more than $90,000 in homeland security cash in 2008, according to the same report. Lodging charges for such hotels as the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 topped $22,000.
The Irv’s Luggage Warehouse expenditure paid for storage for equipment, said an FDLE spokesman.
Leon school officials said their money paid for fencing and security cameras. Lodging was linked to out-of-town cyber-terrorism training expenses. The MusicMasters bill was the result of cyber-training as well.
But there is another bottom line to all this spending, said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw – one that critics may overlook.
With such things as a federally financed intelligence-gathering center, bolstered airport screening and a coastal radar system, Palm Beach County, he said, is demonstrably safer than it was 10 years ago, “no doubt about that.”
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