On several occasions in recent weeks, lawmakers and local officials from New York have loudly complained that the Obama administration is shortchanging them on federal preparedness funds while the Big Apple continues to face significant terrorist threats.
Everyone from GOP Congressman Peter King of Long Island to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg condemned budget plans that called for trimming back two major homeland security grant programs benefiting the state. They point to the attempted Times Square bombing as evidence that New York needs more cash from Washington, not less.
Reporters mostly cast the story as a boxing match between the nation’s most visible metropolis and the White House with coverage not going far beyond remarks issued from both corners of the ring. But a look at public documents suggests that while New York no doubt suffered most from the Sept. 11 attacks, the need for more security funding there may not always be as urgent as its leaders insist.
Records show that New York City’s health department acquired 12 computer servers in September of 2007 to enhance its tracking of infectious diseases and bioterrorism risks. When state officials arrived nearly two years later in 2009 to check up on them, “these servers were still not operational and no project completion plan was offered,” according to a report. Documents also state that there wasn’t enough information available to determine if two more servers “were being used for the purpose of the grant.”
After Elevated Risk exchanged multiple e-mails with the department’s press office, it remained unclear how much work the servers were performing today, and officials refused to disclose the amount paid for them. A spokesperson said only that two servers replaced non-functioning equipment, and the others were currently being relied upon “for testing and back-up” to an existing laboratory information management system. A prepared statement did say their use is limited because the servers were manufactured by a company that is no longer in business and so cannot provide technical support.
The state’s Office of Homeland Security is responsible for overseeing federal readiness grants across New York, and under open-government laws Elevated Risk requested site inspection reports in which officials described what they found after visiting local grantees.
Another such report questioned five toxic vapor analyzers and gamma monitors costing a total of $80,000 and purchased by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Overseers found that the devices went “unutilized” a year after being acquired. The equipment also wasn’t calibrated for use, and “no one was assigned to, or trained to use these monitors,” records state.
Spokesman Farrell Sklerov said in an e-mail that the monitors have since been conditioned for use and are deployed during both routine and special events “to protect the citizens of New York City from exposure to hazardous materials.” Specifically, the gear is designed to monitor the air in real time for toxic chemicals, and department officials told the state they planned to use the equipment last year at the U.S. Open and a major United Nations session.
The city’s IT department shares responsibility with local firefighters for over 1,000 Motorola devices used to track the location of emergency vehicles. Purchased with grant funds from 2005, state officials said in a report that when they showed up in the summer of 2009, a “significant number” were still stored in boxes. “Equipment not being utilized is not benefiting the goals and objectives of this project and therefore expenditures may be disallowed.”
The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications vigorously disputed the finding, records show, telling the state that 250 of the devices were used as spares “to ensure system-wide service integrity.” Ninety more were at one time installed in emergency vehicles that had to be taken out of commission, so those locators were added to the pool of spares, while another three dozen or so were awaiting repairs.
Local officials conceded, however, that over 200 of the trackers were “pending installations” at the time of the state’s visit and they’ve since been pressed into service. That means nearly 400 of them overall still weren’t actively being used when the IT department provided its response, but according to documents, state overseers more or less considered the issue resolved by then.
A spokesman for the IT department, Nick Sbordone, said it was his office’s job merely to make sure the grant funds were spent before federal deadlines expired, and that responsibility was carried out. “We’re in full compliance with the federal government,” he said. Steve Ritea, spokesman for New York City’s fire department, couldn’t immediately say how much the trackers cost but added this: “There’s a certain number used as spares so they can be on hand to replace units that are damaged, and the state has showed they are satisfied with our response.”
To be sure, site-inspection reports generated by the state’s homeland security office show that others had no or few difficulties handling federal readiness grants, including county emergency management offices, small towns, colleges and nonprofits. Nonetheless, government watchdogs elsewhere in the state of New York have additionally questioned millions of dollars worth expenditures for GPS devices, robotic equipment, computers and more.
Last year an investigation of the New York Harbor’s Waterfront Commission revealed that local officials spent port security grants totaling $619,000 for laptops, software and other equipment so personnel could remotely connect to registration and photo-identification databases. The waterfront commission submitted reports to the federal government claiming the system was fully operational, but by the end of 2008, that wasn’t the case.
According to a report from New York’s inspector general: “Laptops that were purchased with grant funds to give police access to databases were not installed in the police cars and were never used for their intended purpose. There was little or no use of other wireless communications proposed in the grant due to inaccessibility or lack of proper training.”
Also discovered was a $170,000 patrol boat the commission told homeland security officials in Washington would be used for detecting “a waterborne attack.” But the inspector general’s investigation found that the craft was only used “sparingly and irregularly,” and trips it did make were mostly for escorting VIPs during major events such as Fleet Week.
Federal auditors in 2008 separately found a lack of explanation for $160,000 in “landlord administrative fees” and called a $3.1 million automated student health record system “questionable,” because school employees who used it said the system had no bio-terrorism application. Officials targeted in the report countered that the system did have a bio-terrorism function, which was cited as the justification for buying it, and argued that perhaps auditors simply interviewed the wrong people.
Finally, a 2007 report from the state comptroller described how New York City’s health department spent $126,000 on subscription fees for almost 400 GPS systems that officials planned to install in government vehicles. Investigators discovered that over 100 of the systems were left in storage and had not been used three years after being purchased. Due to the revelation, department officials requested that a contractor partially credit them for subscription fees totaling $93,000. Auditors in that same report also learned that a $188,000 robotic arm and a $183,000 machine designed for providing information to the public through mass mailings each sat unused for a year.
The recent squabble between Obama officials and New York was in large part initiated by Republican Rep. King, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who described several intercepted terrorism plots in a press release last month before accusing the administration of slashing port and transit security grants for the area by a quarter. “One would expect the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security to understand that the terrorist threat to the United States of America is aimed primarily at the Big Apple,” King said in the statement. “But, sadly, they don’t.”
Democrats from New York’s congressional delegation chimed in with their own barbs attributing the cuts to “mind-bogglingly bad judgment” and saying the change in grant awards “makes absolutely no sense.”
The White House responded by pointing out that New York had been slow to spend hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to the state during past grant years and added that New York would receive over $100 million in security funding from President Obama’s economic stimulus program. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly called that a “numbers game.”
“The real issue is that this city is the target, and we don’t get our fair share,” he said.
Reminding readers that New York already receives far more in readiness dollars than any other place in the country, the Los Angeles Times offered one of the more memorable headlines during the dispute: “Can New York’s bolstered security ever be enough?”
Flickr image by Robert Scoble