So-called “needs assessments” are critical for determining where a community is vulnerable to catastrophe or terrorism. The federal government has required them of states in order to justify how they planned to use the $29 billion in homeland security grants Washington has handed out since Sept. 11. What safety and law enforcement equipment might be necessary to fill known security gaps? Where would training improve the capacity of emergency responders? Such measures may help prevent a mere spending spree on counter-terrorism gadgets that have only minimal relevance to security. But a “comprehensive and time consuming” needs assessment done in 2003 led Ohio officials to conclude that the state “needed” an eye-popping $6.6 billion for new equipment. In the assessment’s wake, Ohio realized its “needs” were far too large and that local communities had created “wish lists” rather than focus on priorities. So the state abandoned its assessment and instead distributed $142 million in readiness and anti-terrorism cash during the years immediately following 9/11 based on a flat amount each county was eligible for, with the rest apportioned according to local population. “It did not attempt to determine if individual counties were using grant funds to meet their identified risks and vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, or to satisfy the equipment shortfalls each county identified during the needs assessment processes,” a February 2008 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Richard Skinner, concluded. That audit is one of many Skinner has done in recent years looking back on how states managed their grant funds, notably in the time period leading up to 2005 when the cash reached a high-point in the amounts appropriated by Congress. The state “never developed measurable goals and objectives,” Skinner found, to determine how much the money was having a positive impact on Ohio’s preparedness. Authorities responded that in 2006, the federal government initiated a more competitive grants process calling on states to thoroughly and meaningfully identify capabilities and gaps. As a result, “counties [in Ohio] were then required to focus their grant expenditures and budget worksheets on the state’s highest priority” – improved public safety communications, Nancy Dragani, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency said in a letter to the inspector general. An advisory committee of professionals now makes recommendations for Ohio’s homeland security strategy, she wrote, and an independent contractor was hired to develop a yardstick for showing objectively how the state is more secure, something government auditors have emphasized repeatedly since the grant programs began. Skinner’s findings in Ohio and other states nonetheless illustrate how disorganized homeland security grants tended to be right after the hijackings when the nation rushed to improve its resistant and resilience to terrorist attacks. The report also revealed that Ohio had not complied with federal purchasing rules on large-ticket items, a problem also faced by other states pressured to buy safety gear as quickly as possible. In cases where businesses were not required to compete with one another for taxpayer money and received sole-source contracts, local grantees in Ohio didn’t look into the prices quoted to make sure they were reasonable, according to Skinner. One case involved $1.3 million in communications equipment. In another, Ohio tried to competitively hire a consultant who could coordinate statewide terrorism exercises. Officials only received one bid but didn’t do a cost analysis before signing a $259,000 contract, which was later expanded without competition to $3.6 million. Dragani’s letter vowed that the state would carry out price evaluations of high-dollar contracts in the future. But the state in addition struggled to track all of the equipment it purchased, and some county bureaucrats had to recall from memory, during the audit, the location of gear so Skinner’s staff could confirm it was being used appropriately. One new county emergency director was forced to “completely reconstruct the previous grant history to determine what had been purchased, where it was located, what it cost, and how it fit into the county’s approach to using first responder grant funds.” The former head had “mismanaged the county’s grant program and had not documented how the grant funds were used.” A second county justified buying a $23,000 four-wheel drive vehicle by saying it would be used to pull equipment trailers. In fact, the automobile had no trailer hitch and a manager was relying on it for her commute. That also occurred in two other counties, but local officials ceased after the state found out about it. Grant guidelines have long prohibited “general-use” vehicles from being purchased. Otherwise for Ohio, Skinner determined, “there was no assurance that millions of dollars of personal property procured with federal grant funds was adequately safeguarded or used for authorized purposes.” According to Dragani’s letter, local grant recipients now must present equipment tracking sheets to the state showing where gear is located, and her office emphasizes the mandate at annual state conferences. As for the improperly used vehicle, it now has a hitch and is appropriately utilized. We filed a request under Ohio’s Public Records Act but weren’t able to obtain detailed information showing specifically how grant funds have been used there since 2001. They were only available in hard-copy form, and Xeroxing the documents would involve 20,000 pages of material, an issue with many other states where purchases couldn’t be examined in convenient computer files. Other relevant records are available here, however. Since the grant programs began, policymakers in Congress have been known to quarrel with the Department of Homeland Security over proposed cuts or changes to the formula for how they’re awarded – anything to keep constituents back home from losing out. In the most recent clash, Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote to homeland security officials opposing an October 2009 policy announcement that states would need to find their own money for maintaining grant-purchased equipment long term so the burden wouldn’t remain on Washington indefinitely. Another Ohio representative, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, joined Driehaus by launching a bill that month called the Strengthening and Updating Resources and Equipment Act aimed at nixing the new policy. Within a short period of time the legislation had 23 co-sponsors, including Driehaus. Congresswoman Kilroy invited one of her own constituents, an emergency manager from Ohio’s Franklin County named Kathy Crandall, to testify on the matter during a homeland security committee hearing. Crandall warned that limiting the funds would harm the county’s homeland security investments, including systems for sharing intelligence data with the FBI, licenses and user fees for communications gear and devices for detecting dangerous chemical and biological agents.
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, Wired.com, 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.More by G.W. Schulz