A grant program administered by the Department of Homeland Security has morphed from a fund designed to fight terror into a pork-barrel program that pads local governments’ budgets, according to a report to be released Wednesday by Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.).
The report, titled "Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities," focuses on Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI).
"Since 2003, DHS has spent $35 billion on grant programs that were intended to make Americans safer from terrorist attacks," a spokesman for Sen. Coburn wrote in an email. "But DHS failed to establish goals or metrics to ensure that funds were used to make Americans safe and cannot say how much safer we are today after spending $35 billion."
The report says the UASI grant program has ballooned beyond its original intent and lacks the oversight and rigorous measurements needed to determine its effectiveness.
The report also points out numerous examples of wasteful and inappropriate spending by grant recipients.
One example of wasteful spending highlighted by the report is a security conference for which the grant money paid the $1,000 entrance fee.
The centerpiece of the conference was a "zombie apocalypse" demonstration where a "tactical training firm" staged a live simulated response to a zombie attack. "Conference attendees were invited to watch the shows as part of their education in emergency response training," the report says.
"The administration is seeking $1.5 billion for its state and local grant programs—a nearly 40 percent increase over its FY2011 funding level" this year despite problems with the grant allocation process, according to the report
The "agency characterized the grants as a stimulus package, which it argued was needed given the ‘current economic situation and the need for further fiscal stimulus,’" earlier this year.
Loan applicants picked up on the administration’s expansive goals for the program. One online website offered this advice for applicants: "Tell them what they want to hear and you stand a chance of getting a better score."
What the government wanted to hear was "how their project would create jobs," notes the report.
"By 2010, the program grew to 64 funded urban areas, which was the highest it reached before budget realities forced the program to scale back," the report states. The program was initially limited to seven urban areas.
One reason for the expansion was that the program was subject to congressional oversight. The report notes that then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge was seeking a formula for the grants that could simply pass the House or Senate. Congress also set up a UASI caucus dedicated to the funding.
Local governments often sought to portray even smaller urban areas as vulnerable to terrorist attacks, allowing them to receive grant money.
The report spends a considerable amount of time detailing how local governments pursued armored vehicles, which subsequently sat idle. One town used its armored vehicle to pull over drunk drivers while others paraded them around instead of using them.
Another town used the anti-terror grant to purchase license plate readers, which the town then used to track stolen cars and repeat traffic-law violators. Towns also pursued drones with the funds.
The report questions the anti-terror benefits of these expenditures and notes that the administration has no way of tracking how effective the grants have been.
"FEMA has continued to award money but routinely failed to assess how security measures purchased with UASI dollars, for example, have helped to buy-down risk," the report says.
"We can only defend our freedoms by ensuring the dollars we spend on security are done so in a fiscally responsible manner, meet real needs, and respect the very rights we are aiming to preserve and protect," the report asserts.
"We have seen the value of these grants time and again," said Matt Chandler, a DHS spokesman. "As envisioned by Congress, these grants have directly supported the development and sustainment of core state and local capabilities identified as national strengths in the 2012 National Preparedness Report – from helping to save lives and minimize damage during the tornadoes in the South and Midwest, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy to building a national network of fusion centers to strengthen critical information sharing and terrorism prevention."
DHS assures that efforts are being made to protect taxpayer dollars.
"The proposed National Preparedness Grants Program reflects a more targeted approach to grant funding that will ensure federal dollars are being used to build and sustain core capabilities and address national priorities while incorporating measures of effectiveness to ensure accountability," Chandler said.