Government waste exposed

Dec. 14, 2012
From sno-cones to a zombie apocalypse, cities have been abusing funds in the name of homeland security for years

Wasteful spending by our government — especially in the name of security — is nothing new. Entire presidential campaigns have been built on eliminating it. As our leadership drives us closer to a mythical “fiscal cliff,” and when the general public is increasingly participating in a growing argument over what is an “entitlement” and what isn’t, it becomes high time to expose areas where government spending can and should be cut.

That brings us to Senator Tom Coburn, a republican representing Oklahoma, who has spearheaded a quest to expose egregious government spending in the name of — you guessed it — homeland security. Coburn earlier this month released a report detailing “questionable” spending as part of the federal government’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), where grant funding designed to protect you and me has been used for, among other things, sno-cone machines and training for an eventual “zombie apocalypse.”

“We cannot secure liberty and guarantee security simply by spending more and more money in the name of security,” Coburn, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, writes in a letter to his constituents. “Every dollar misspent in the name of security weakens our already precarious economic condition, indebts us to foreign nations, and shackles the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Considering the spending he has uncovered, that might be an understatement. UASI grants were designed to be start-up investments to help the most vulnerable urban areas enhance both their readiness and response capabilities. Coburn uncovered questionable spending in a detailed review of just 15 cities that have received funding through the UASI program. The results found that taxpayer money spent “has not always been spent in ways obviously linked to terrorism or preparedness.”

Importantly, Coburn adds, this does not mean money was spent outside the bounds of what was allowed. Here are some of the highlights:


  • Michigan: Purchased 13 sno-cone machines for $6,200. Officials defended the purchase, saying the machines were needed to treat heat-related emergencies.


  • Cook County, Ill.: Spent $45.6 million on “Project Shield,” a failed video surveillance network. The project was launched in 2004; by 2011, local officials claimed: “There is overwhelming evidence that the money is being misspent and it's being mismanaged.” The entire program was shuttered in 2011, and the FBI was called in to investigate whether any federal laws were violated.


  • Columbus, Ohio: Spent a $98 million UASI grant to purchase an “underwater robot” that officials said would be used for underwater rescues. According to Coburn’s report, the Columbus City Council went so far as to declare the purchase an “emergency,” not because of security needs, but because of “federal grant deadlines.”  If the money was not spent quickly, it would have been lost. The robot has only been used for search and recovery missions – ie. searching for sunken ships and cars in rivers.


  • Keene, N.H.: Used a grant worth $285,933 to purchase a BearCat armored police vehicle. Residents viewed the vehicle as an unnecessary purchase, developing their own motto — “thanks, but no tanks.” Although the town has had just two murders in the past 15 years, police officials said the vehicle would come in handy for patrolling the town’s annual Pumpkin Festival.


  • Peoria, Ariz.: Spent $90,000 to install bollards and surveillance cameras at the Peoria Sports Complex, which is used for spring training by the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.


  • First Responder Training: The HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit 2012 was held at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an island outside San Diego. The five-day summit was deemed an allowable expense by DHS, permitting first responders to use grant funds for the $1,000 entrance fee. Over the course of the conference, numerous technology companies provided live-action demonstrations in an effort to drum up business — but that’s not even the most egregious part. The marquee event of the summit was its highly-promoted “zombie apocalypse” demonstration, which featured 40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit. Conference attendees were invited to watch the shows as part of their education in emergency response training.

The list actually goes on…and on.  To read the entire report, go here:

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and subsequent grant programs were supposed to be a boon for our industry. People envisioned post-9/11 security spending on the grandest of scales—but even the most staunch supporters of homeland security could not condone this sort of abuse of UASI and other funding-related programs.

“If in the days after 9/11 lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years, I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program,” Coburn said. “We would have been frustrated to learn that limited federal resources were now subsidizing the purchase of low-priority items.”

This is not to say that all of our taxpayer dollars are being misspent—I would assume that the majority of funds are going to areas where they are necessary. However, officials in these cities and others must embrace the idea that “just because there’s funding available, does not mean it MUST be allocated.” That’s something that leaders on both sides of the aisle can embrace.

Cities have received $7.1 billion in grants through UASI alone since 2003. Our national debt has reached $16 trillion. It’s time to clean up the nation’s spending in the name of security—as it can surely be a detour on our nation’s drive toward the fiscal cliff. 

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