Chautauqua County in western New York State is just a few paces – or 300 miles to be more exact – from Times Square. Flickr image by Doug Kerr

While prominent political leaders from the New York City area attacked the Obama administration in May complaining it was leaving the Big Apple vulnerable to terrorism by reducing the large sums it receives each year in federal homeland security grants, a small county far away in the western section of the state turned down similar funds for a boat and trailer.

The sheriff of Chautauqua County told local officials at a business meeting last month that preparedness cash would cover not only the watercraft and trailer but also the cost of personnel and gas for a year. “If we don’t take [the money], then they will give it to someone else,” the Post-Journal newspaper quoted a captain from the sheriff’s department as saying.

But county legislators worried costs for maintaining it would fall back on them, or they’d be barred from dry-docking it if necessary. Although the final vote was narrow, a resolution to accept the grant was ultimately defeated.

New York City, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance security using federal readiness grants and during recent months pointed to the attempted Times Square bombing as evidence that it deserves more, not less, from Washington.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the state’s congressional delegation stepped in line to lob criticism at the Obama White House over reported plans to cut back transit and port security funds for New York. GOP Congressman Pete King of Long Island, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the move “dangerous and unconscionable.” The city still stood to rake in $144 million from these programs alone for the year.

Elevated Risk reported June 15 using documents obtained from the state through an open-government request that some public safety equipment purchased there went long lengths of time without being used.

In many ways the debate in Chautauqua County mirrored what occurs at the municipal level everyday in America without much notice. One area Democrat said seeking the grant was proof the county didn’t want to contend with the larger hazard of an $18 million deficit and preferred to instead spend as much as possible until it was forced to make painful decisions, which he called “business as usual.”

What makes the county remarkable is that it’s almost unheard of for any state or local community nationwide to turn away federal anti-terrorism and disaster preparedness funds. Congress began handing out billions of dollars worth after the Sept. 11 attacks to finance everything from urban assault vehicles to intelligence fusion centers.

In every corner of the country there’s an explanation in grant applications for why they have a right to the money. Our town has a large amusement park that fills to the brim with tourists every year making it a likely target for terrorists. Yeah, but our town has a manufacturing plant, and surely Al Qaeda wants to do us economic harm by incinerating it in an explosion.

Seattle, for instance, didn’t just buy any boat. It used at least $1.5 million (conservatively gleaning from records Elevated Risk obtained last year) on a 50-foot “rapid-response vessel” for handling chemical, biological and nuclear incidents.

So the Chautauqua County sheriff’s request for a mere jet ski by comparison is modest. The vote by civilian representatives who oversee his budget is nonetheless compelling and demonstrates that public debate can occur over just how much the nation is willing to spend for the war on terror.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.