North Carolina County Sizes up Security Requests

County leaders question expensive homeland security requests, asks whether $50K pick-up truck is necessary


Requests for several items to improve homeland security in Gaston County aren't sitting well with county commissioners.

The items include a $9,000 gate for the Gastonia Municipal Airport, which isn't completely fenced; a $49,000 truck for the Gastonia Fire Department to haul trailers; and a $19,000 bomb-sniffing dog for the Gaston County Sheriff's Office.

Commissioners have asked whether the equipment was necessary. They want to know whether it would be shared by cities across the county. And they want to know why it costs so much.

Gaston County has been awarded more than $1 million in federal homeland security grants since 2002, including a $375,295 grant this year. City and county officials came up with their priorities from a list of $7 million in needs, said county Emergency Management Director Jim Pharr.

Commissioners said the grant instead should be used to pay for basic needs such as ambulances and global positioning system receivers for emergency vehicles.

Congress has approved $6 billion for homeland security since the 9-11 attacks. But an Observer investigation published in September found that many agencies around the country ordered equipment they'll probably never use to fight terrorism and never could have afforded on their own.

City and county officials say the items are needed to protect the county's vulnerable areas.

"Everybody wanted things that would help their cities, but they were thinking about the county as a whole," said commissioner Donnie Loftis, who attended some meetings to identify priorities.

Commissioners were scheduled to approve the list Thursday but voted to postpone the decision until officials could explain why they needed some of the items.

"I think we really need to focus on what we're spending the dollars on and select things that will be most advantageous for security," said commissioner John Torbett. His suggestion: strengthening the exterior of the county courthouse.

Commissioner Tom Keigher said the county should equip all rescue squad and fire trucks with global positioning systems so they have mapping tools, and so emergency dispatchers can locate them.

"To me it just looks like we're going to spend the money 'cause we have it here," he said.

Commissioner Pearl Burris Floyd said the list also needs to include items to help with medical emergencies. She suggested buying new ambulances to help improve the county's emergency response times.

An Observer series published last week showed it takes Gaston paramedics an average of 10.7 minutes to get to medical emergencies, nearly two minutes longer than recommended national standards.

But the county cannot use the funds to buy ambulances or other vehicles that are used daily, Pharr said. The county has, though, bought medical equipment with previous homeland security grants.

Commissioner Floyd Wright pointed out that some towns, including Cherryville, are not getting any equipment. Most equipment bought with the money would go to Gastonia agencies under the current proposal.

But "even though a single agency will get primary control over a piece of equipment, it's for the good of everybody," Pharr said.

Commissioners will take up the issue again Nov. 10.

Where the Money Would Go

Gaston County police, fire and emergency officials want to spend a $375,295 federal homeland security grant on the following items. County commissioners want them to justify why they are needed.

$49,000 for meter to detect contamination, Gastonia's water treatment facility.

$49,000 for F-550 truck, Gastonia Fire Department.

$49,000 to replace breathing air compressor for fire departments, Gaston College.

$41,000 for hazardous chemical classification kits, Gastonia Fire Department.

$38,000 for night-vision aids for law enforcement, Gastonia and Gaston County police.

$29,000 for personal protective equipment for bomb technicians, Gastonia Police Department.

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