In the years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Texas has grabbed at least $1.7 billion in federal Homeland Security grants, with large chunks of the money spent to beef up law enforcement communication and border security.
But a Star-Telegram examination of thousands of purchases also found a hodgepodge of spending, some of which might have taxpayers scratching their heads: a $21 fish tank in Seguin, a $24,000 latrine on wheels in Fort Worth, and a real pork project — a hog catcher in Liberty County.
Homeland Security paid for body bags, garbage bags and Ziploc bags.
If taxpayers had a say-so, they might have gone along with some purchases, such as $24,012 in body armor for the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority. But what about the two 2011 Camaros, each $30,884, used in Kleberg County border enforcement?
A report this year by the inspector general of the U.S. Homeland Security Department criticized the state's management of Homeland Security grants from 2006 to 2008. While the audit showed that the state was generally efficient in administering the grant programs, it said the state passed along Homeland Security money to local governments without adequately defined goals and objectives to strengthen preparedness and response to attacks or disasters.
The state also failed to adequately monitor how cities and counties or others getting money were performing their responsibilities, the report says. Instead, the state asked local officials to rate their own performance. The audit recommended that the state develop goals, milestones and work tasks to assess and improve that performance.
Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which administers Homeland Security grants, said the inspector general just meant that the wording Texas used didn't match the grant guidance, and the issue has been addressed. As for monitoring, DPS said Friday that it is continuing work to improve and expand those activities.
But in a four-year span ending in 2009, DPS had evaluated only about 60 grant recipients a year with little or no emphasis on program performance, the inspector general's audit found. Spot checks by the inspector general revealed embarrassing lapses: A $250,000 first responder trailer had been parked since its purchase without much use. Bolt cutters had to be used to open another trailer because keys couldn't be found. Once inspectors broke in, they found two new mobile generators with flat tires. Elsewhere, a SWAT team's body armor had expired in 2003, according to the February report.
Other critics say the spending largely missed the mark, allowing for unproven technologies along with everyday items like framing hammers, envelopes and hanging folders. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service has reported that likely terrorist targets, the nation's half-million miles of oil and gas pipelines, have been left vulnerable.
Last month, the FBI reported that a potential explosive device had been placed on a gas line in Oklahoma.
While state and city officials dispute criticisms about strategy — "They don't know what they're talking about," said former Texas Homeland Security director Jay Kimbrough, — it's hard to determine how much the spending has strengthened safety.
The Heritage Foundation found in a nationwide study that the influx of federal cash often didn't add to state and local homeland security spending so much as replace it.
Juan Ortiz, Fort Worth's emergency management coordinator, said grant-financed training has helped, and experience with hurricanes, power outages, the flooding of the Trinity and Lake Worth, and the Super Bowl helped prepare first responders. "Are we done? No. We still have a lot to do. ... We're really just beginning to scratch the surface," he said.
Read more of this story at Star-Telegram.com