Opinion » Shredder

Blowing it


Here’s news that shouldn’t surprise anybody who’s read reports about the bomb squad responding to suspicious electric toothbrushes: Nobody has been keeping good track of whether the federal money that’s flowed to counties to prevent terrorism has been spent in ways that might actually prevent terrorism.

A new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General says California’s management of the federal grants has problems.

There’s no mention of San Luis Obispo County in the report—hardly any counties are named specifically—but you can’t help but look at the arsenal of weapons, vehicles, mobile command centers, and whizbang gizmos that the county puts on display every once in a while and wonder what the hell they think might be headed this way.

Once the local bomb squad starts blowing up “suspicious-looking” briefcases—which they did recently—you have to wonder if they’ve got a little too much time and money on their hands. Not too long ago they brought out the robot to discover an electric toothbrush buzzing in a box of clothes near the train track.

In 2007, the robot got put into duty at the courthouse to deal with a nicely wrapped bag of human feces somebody put in the trash. Before that, it was a cooler of fish.

Again, nothing specifically naming SLO in the report, but it does question the spending of $294,000 for a remote-control robot by one county. Sound familiar? (It’s almost certainly not SLO the report is talking about; SLO has had its robot since before the 2004-2006 period covered by the contract.)

The auditors were concerned that there didn’t seem to be any way in place to measure whether locals were wisely using the money in a way that would prevent, deter, or respond to actual acts of terrorism.

And it’s hard to blame the counties, because the report notes that neither the state nor the feds had good rules in place to guide the spending of the money. It was just free money, and I’ll bet a bag of Utopia pastries that, for most of the law-enforcement folks who work on the bomb-squad task force, any call of a potential explosive device makes their day. They get to leave their workaday posts, put on cool suits, play with robots, and blow shit up!

Folks, if that doesn’t sound like a good day at work to you, then you are not my type of people. And the bomb squad does get called out for real deals sometimes, mostly homemade pipe bombs and found ammunition. So it’s not that there aren’t bad guys; they just aren’t terrorists.

The report helps us remember that it’s ultimately our money that gets spent on these toys. The report found one unnamed county spent about $100,000 on a new generator only to discover they couldn’t use it because it would take another $130,000 to update the electric system. It found another unnamed county spent $600,000 to update listening devices in police interrogation rooms, which might be nice for the police but doesn’t keep us any safer from the bad guys.

Night-vision goggles, communication systems that might not work—in all they identified $11 million that might have been misspent after just looking at a select group of counties. And they noted that many of the local communities spent the money without getting competitive grants. Why bother, since it wasn’t their money being spent?
   So here’s the message counties are going to get from this limp-noodle reprimand: Stop unnecessarily spending federal anti-terrorism money and get to work unnecessarily spending federal stimulus money.

Out of space

Running out of room. Must write shorter. Here’s the other stuff that would have been in this column:

• Atascadero Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Wade McKinney finally got his man: The Atascadero City Manager was able to “lay off” redevelopment guy Marty Tracey, the guy he scapegoated, fired, and then was forced to rehire, for a McKinney-caused mess over an eminent domain matter. Sometimes bad times are just good excuses.

• Allan Hancock College calls its new website: myHancock! Write your own joke.

• The city of SLO just sold itself, in a budget gimmick, a small plot of land near the new kiddie museum. No big deal, except they priced this land at $700,000. Seems like they price their land low when they want to sell it to big downtown developers—think: Chinatown—but high when it serves their own needs.

Shredder can be reached at [email protected].

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