Inside the Pork Barrel in Nevada: Snake Tongs from Homeland Security Dollars

CARSON CITY - Snake tongs, according to a company that manufactures the device, are long, metal sticks that "allow for the humane handling of snakes."

They are dandy tools for handling rattlesnakes. Few, however, would immediately see them as key to the nation's fight against terrorism.

Yet the city of Las Vegas last year spent $300 in federal Homeland Security grants to purchase five snake tongs for its animal control officers.

The Review-Journal examined Homeland Security grants given out during the 2003-04 fiscal year, the most recent period for which agencies have obtained all the items purchased with the grants.

Homeland Security funds also bought more than 200 polo shirts at $19.95 each, a $3.76 wastebasket, an $882 cooking grill and dozens of night-vision binoculars, global positioning systems and laptop computers.

The polo shirts were given to Las Vegas police volunteers, while the cooking grill was given to the Salvation Army for use in a portable shelter.

Expenditures such as these prompted Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, to complain during a recent legislative meeting that police and fire departments are using Homeland Security funds as a way to fill their "wish lists."

The agencies should use existing funds for these kinds of purchases, Giunchigliani said, and devote Homeland Security funds to fighting terrorism or preparing for natural disasters.

"They have never done an assessment of what their needs are and set their priorities," she said. "In looking at some of their purchases, it gives the appearance that someone sat down and said 'If we could get this, it would be great.' But how does it tie to homeland security?"

Nevada and its local governments have received $93.2 million in homeland security funds since 1999. More than $73 million has gone to Clark County and Southern Nevada's local governments over that time.

The state is expected to receive $17 million in grants for the 2005-06 fiscal year, down appreciably from grants over the last two years.

The federal government began sending the funds to states more than two years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Frank Siracusa, administrator of the state Division of Emergency Management, said some people have the misconception that Homeland Security funds must be spent only on equipment or training to prevent terrorism attacks. But, he said, the money can be used to help law enforcement agencies respond to any type of disaster, including earthquakes, fires, bombs, chemical or gas leaks and explosions.

In addition, agencies can buy any equipment on an approved federal list, he said. It includes pens, pencils, wastebaskets and, apparently, snake tongs.

"We watch every expenditure down to 50 cents," said Siracusa. "You can't buy something that is not on the list. We aren't 100 percent perfect, but we do the best we can."

Siracusa said he or members of the state Homeland Security Commission have approved every expenditure.

Jim O'Brien, Emergency Management Department director in Clark County, said snake tongs might look questionable on paper, but "unfortunately some people have snakes as pets." And the tongs might be used to handle disaster victims' pet snakes.

The tongs came in handy last summer for animal control officers during a training exercise designed to test the city of Las Vegas's new $172,006 mobile emergency animal shelter, also purchased with homeland security grant funds.

The idea, officials said, is to have a mobile pet shelter available during a disaster that is near the human shelter.

Human shelters do not accept pets. Following Hurricane Katrina, many people chose to remain in their flooded homes rather than abandon pets, said city spokesman Jace Radke.

Officials acknowledged they're under pressure to make quick decisions on the equipment they purchase with Homeland Security grants.

"Congress has given us 60 days to obligate the money," Siracusa said. "The clock is ticking. We must get applications, review them, go before the commission. I must certify each application meets federal criteria."

If officials delay, then the grants could be withdrawn and the money given to other states. So far, Nevada has not lost any grant money, Siracusa said.

"It is not just throwing money out there," he said. "There is a process in place."

In response to Giunchigliani's criticism, Siracusa said his agency did assessments in 2001 and 2003 of potential terrorist targets and natural disasters. Clark County completed a similar assessment last year, he said.

The state Homeland Security Commission contracted with the UNLV Center for Security Studies earlier this year to prepare an assessment of buildings and locations that would be most vulnerable to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, Siracusa said. The study should be completed in 2006.

"The contractor is going through what we have done to see if we missed anything," he said.

Most of the expenditures by local governments examined by the Review-Journal were for equipment to help "first responders," including police and firefighters, in dealing with disasters like chemical spills or earthquakes.

For example, the city of Las Vegas received $124,500 for "thermal imaging cameras," equipment that can see through smoke and other conditions where visibility is poor.

The department also received $509,261 for bomb squad equipment.

Henderson received $400,000 for a hazardous materials response vehicle and Las Vegas police spent $709,500 on equipment for their crime lab. The Clark County Fire Department spent $1 million on a decontamination vehicle for use during a terrorism incident.

Federal Homeland Security regulations forbid using the funds for police patrol cars. But Las Vegas police spent $22,000 on a Chevrolet Trail Blazer and $16,700 on a Pontiac Grand Prix for use in programs to prevent chemical-, biological-, nuclear- or explosives-related incidents.

But some police departments purchased basic equipment they have not been able to afford with existing funds. The Mesquite Police Department bought a $139,699 surveillance vehicle, $5,750 in video recording equipment and binoculars, video and digital cameras.

Marge Gunn, the emergency management director in Lincoln County, called the grants a "godsend." Lincoln County, home to fewer than 5,000 people, has received $275,000 over the past six years.

Lincoln County's purchases include 100 blankets at $14.14 each for an emergency shelter, defibrillators, nebulizers and even 100 body bags. Nebulizers are devices that dispense medication to people with asthma.

"I am doing my best to be prepared on limited funds," Gunn said.

If a terrorist attack or natural disaster occurred in Clark County, some people probably would be evacuated to Lincoln County, she said.

"We all should work together to ensure the public is safe," Gunn said.