Is Homeland Security dough well spent?

Follow the money
By PETER VOSKAMP  |  April 2, 2008
Acts of transnational terrorism barely put a direct dent in a rich nation’s GDP, yet guarding against this can utilize resources at an alarming rate without greatly reducing the risks, according to three economists for the Copenhagen Consensus, which studies how money is spent on behalf of the world’s welfare.
 
“Because it is human nature to overspend on unlikely catastrophic events, it is likely that terrorists have succeeded in getting the world to overspend on counterterrorism,” they write.
 
Rhode Island has had plenty of counter-terrorism money thrown at it since 9/11 — a little more than $12 million in 2007, and a total of about $73 million over the last five years — and it’s still coming.
 
The University of Rhode Island, for example, was recently named a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. URI will receive $2 million annually to research “the risks, costs, and consequences of terrorism,” to develop explosive detection technologies, and “enhance suspicious passenger identification” for commercial aviation.
 
So, is Rhode Island a target-rich environment? The state contains 97 “Critical Infrastructure Assets,” according to a 2006 federal report. These could be hospitals, universities, or transportation hubs, to name a few.
 
In 2006, when it looked like state’s Homeland funding was going to be severely cut, the elected officials argued that Rhode Island was indeed an attractive target (Interstate 95, railways, Providence as an important heating oil port, etc.).
 
US Representative Jim Langevin helped secure $5.1 million in Urban Area Security Initiative allocations for Providence — almost half the state’s entire 2007 take.
 
According to state Emergency Management spokesman Steve Kass, Homeland Security money “absolutely” makes its way into the state economy. In payroll alone, he said, the federal money provides the salaries for the vast majority of RIEMA employees and contract workers.
 
As Homeland money is dispersed around the state, it goes primarily to first responders: firefighters, law enforcement, emergency medical technicians. The funds purchase equipment, pay for training and new facilities, and provide for the occasional hire.
 
Rhode Island now has a $1.4 million mobile command center, and emergency communications have been much improved state-wide.
 
And, while Johnston might not be on Al Qaeda’s hit list, the state will seemingly be better prepared for a toxic spill or devastating hurricane, thanks to new hazmat/decontamination teams and a new mass casualty incident team.
 
Chief Robert Seltzer of the Central Coventry Fire District explains that the $923,000 State Homeland Security Grant his department received in fiscal 2007 was used to coordinate and train the state’s urban search and rescue team. Coventry was also able to hire four more firefighters in 2005, though the town will eventually pay their salaries.
 
But while it may be reassuring to see a Visible Inter-modal Protection and Response (VIPR) team make a recent surprise visit to the Block Island Ferry, is it all worth it, considering that the nation is more than $9 trillion in debt?
 
According to one of the Copenhagen economists, Todd Sandler of the University of Texas, a lot of Homeland Security “is pork barrel spending. When you combine what is being bought with the absence of accounting for risk, there is surely a lot of waste.”
 
So is the money pouring into Rhode Island a boondoggle?
 
“I wouldn’t argue that the money spent on research and on the center, which is a tiny portion of [Homeland Security] budget, is wasted. Good research can inform good policy making.”

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  Topics: This Just In , Politics, Public Finance, Domestic Policy,  More more >
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