Homeland Security pays dividends for Alaska

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Despite its go-it-alone spirit, sparsely populated Alaska is one of the greatest per-capita beneficiaries of funding from Washington among the 50 states. A major portion of those federal taxpayer dollars in recent years has come from large infusions of homeland security grants and appropriations handed out to the state since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, where she was mayor from 1996 to 2002, has benefited immensely from the anti-terrorism bonanza. Wasilla, with a population of 7,028, has acquired a surveillance system for its water wells, a 150-foot tall communications tower that altered the city’s landscape, a half-million dollar mobile command vehicle with off-road capabilities, and more.

According to an analysis of federal spending figures and additional records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from the state of Alaska through open-government laws:

  • Between 2002 and 2006, Alaska received at least $66.6 million from the most common preparedness grants distributed by the Department of Homeland Security putting the state behind only three others in per-capita spending: Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, Vermont, and North Dakota. The amount is about $100 per Alaskan, more than double the per-capita figure for the state of New York and $70 more than for each California resident.
  • Between 2003 and 2007, Wasilla received at least $1.4 million in homeland security grants, including $987,550 from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, for which fire departments apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on their own. The state of Alaska received $18.2 million from the assistance to firefighters program between 2002-2008 on top of what it had already won in other homeland security grants.
  • Using $244,500 in funding from the 2005 grant cycle, Wasilla constructed a 100-foot tall communications tower for its small police force. An additional $148,000 came during 2007, to improve law enforcement communications and to raise the new tower 50 feet after the city realized the one it built wasn’t tall enough.

The borough that surrounds Wasilla — Alaska’s equivalent of a county jurisdiction — has received at least $2.8 million in grants from the Homeland Security Department over the last five years. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, or Mat-Su as locals call it, spent nearly $70,000 to install security equipment at two fire stations in Wasilla and also acquired a $410,000 mobile command communications vehicle outfitted with a conference room and an incinerator toilet. It’s kept in Wasilla, as is a $427,000 hazardous materials truck the borough purchased that contains a computer program for plotting potentially deadly chemical plumes.

Wasilla has further enjoyed a windfall of federal money for other public safety purposes outside of Homeland Security Department grants. That amount is more than $5 million since 2006 alone, mostly from earmarks.

Not everyone in Wasilla welcomes the federal handouts. Steve Stoll, a local land surveyor and City Hall gadfly in Wasilla, ran for mayor in 2005 arguing that the city shouldn’t too quickly grab at every dollar in homeland security assistance that becomes available.

“So many times I’ve heard the expression, ‘If we don’t take it, someone else will,’” Stoll, who lost the election, said in an interview with CIR. “I just don’t subscribe to that at all. I think it’s a totally wrong way to run government.”

The largely conservative and independent voters of Alaska exhibit a dual personality when it comes to taxation. Opposing greater local sales and property taxes is a reliable strategy for politicians seeking to win elections. But Alaska has profited from the billions of dollars in grants federal lawmakers began distributing to local governments for disaster preparedness after Sept. 11. Since the attacks, Alaska’s delegation has also sought lucrative congressional earmarks for large state projects, emphasizing in each any veneer of national security.

Palin first became mayor of Wasilla in 1996 after claiming that her opponent had a “tax-and-spend mentality” because he sought a 2 percent sales tax to fix the city’s roads and sewer system. She defeated former Alaska governor Frank Murkowski in 2006 after promising voters she would sell a $2 million publicly owned passenger jet he used to travel on state business. Murkowski originally attempted to buy the plane with homeland security money – the federal government said no.

While the state’s receipt of federal subsidies has continued apace, Palin boosted her popularity as governor earlier this year by handing out a $1,200 energy rebate to Alaskans in addition to the $2,069 payment each already received from an oil royalty fund paid into by energy producers.

“Of course we believe ourselves to be self-reliant but are far more reliant on federal spending and oil taxes, which pay for most of state government expenses, than any other state,” said Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “That’s a contradiction leading to a good deal of ambivalence in our attitudes toward government.”

Voters in Anchorage, the state’s most populous city, rejected $117 million worth of local bond measures that had seemed like a sure thing during a 2006 election after mayoral candidate Jack Frost fiercely campaigned in opposition to property taxes. The measures included $98 million for schools and $13 million more for “homeland security” improvements ranging from the replacement of ambulances to radio communications upgrades. But Frost lost.

Alaskans aren’t as swift to turn away federal grants. Wasilla used 2003 homeland security funds of $46,000 to place surveillance cameras at its sewage treatment plant and water supply facilities.

“We’re a small city, so we’re not a large target, hopefully,” a public works director told the Anchorage Daily News in 2005 for a story headlined “Homeland security has been good to Mat-Su.” “The only thing we’ve experienced is minor vandalism on the (water storage) tanks.”

The Wasilla Police Department had only eight officers when it was created in 1993 not long before Palin became mayor, and it remains small today with about two-dozen officers, which patrol the 13-square mile city. The man Palin appointed during her tenure to be the city’s police chief, Charlie Fannon, later became a consultant and grant writer for Wasilla helping to oversee its major homeland security purchases, including the tower.

The extra funds Wasilla received for raising the tower are part of a boon of federal money awarded to the city aside from the grants already acquired from the Department of Homeland Security.

City budget documents show that Wasilla had a total operating budget in 2008 of $13.7 million. But it received for its small police department $986,643 in federal aid for radio repeaters and to outfit its patrol cars with wireless mobile computers, which connect to police headquarters and an emergency dispatch center.

Records also show that Wasilla was granted $4.2 million in federal earmarks last year from Congress for a pilot broadband communications project designed to link law enforcement and medical personnel together between Wasilla and the Mat-Su Borough allowing them to, among other things, transmit video and audio back and forth. Local officials say the project is one-of-a-kind in the state.

The city didn’t expect to use any of its own money for those projects.

“There are so many applications, I think we’re only limited by our creativity in the areas of homeland security, emergency response, EMS, and fire,” Fannon, the grants consultant, told the Daily News in 2005.

Wasilla is by no means the only rural, lightly populated Alaska town benefiting from the post-9/11 surge in federal largesse. The city of Whittier located 60 miles southeast of Anchorage has a population of about 175 people. But it boasts of attracting tourists and various cruise lines. It spent $28,400 in federal grants to purchase two SABRE 3000 Anthrax detectors, $24,000 on an “incident command vehicle” and $15,000 for two Kawasaki 4×4 ATVs with winches, state records show.

There’s never been a reported case of Anthrax infection in Alaska history, according to the state’s Department of Health and Social Services.

The western Alaska port city of Bethel, with fewer than 6,000 people, spent $6,287 to buy a “surveillance shotgun listening device,” $44,000 on seven ATVs, and $22,000 for video surveillance of its water treatment plant.

The fishing village of Dillingham in southwestern Alaska, which contains about 2,500 people, spent $2,050 on an “impact-resistant door” and $202,000 on a wireless surveillance system that blanketed its downtown and port areas with 80 cameras. The cameras so irked some local residents leery of government intrusion that the longtime mayor who pursued them, Chris Napoli, resigned under persistent criticism in 2006.

The borough that surrounds Wasilla, Matanuska-Susitna, also benefited from federal funds. It has more governmental responsibility than Wasilla overseeing schools and fire emergencies, for example. It is an area of south central Alaska about the size of West Virginia and has roughly 80,000 people.

According to an examination of state spending records, of the nearly $3 million it received in Homeland Security grants since 2003, the borough spent $66,200 to install surveillance cameras and a key-card entry system at two fire stations in Wasilla, $25,000 on infrared cameras, $14,277 on four laptops, and $2,193 on 15 bullhorns. Borough officials also acquired a $410,000 mobile command communications vehicle specially outfitted with a four-wheel drive chassis to accommodate Alaska’s rugged terrain, a conference room with a projector screen, and an incinerator toilet, which operates without water.

Another $60,000 in grant funds was needed to outfit the new truck with interoperable radios that could reach the state’s emergency communications system, and $70,769 more was spent installing a satellite system for Internet access and video conferences.

Dennis Brodigan, the borough’s emergency services director, said in an interview with CIR that the fire department had trouble figuring out where to store the new command center, so now it’s kept in a commercial building next door to a Wasilla firehouse. At least $9,000 in grant funds has covered leasing expenses so far, records show.

The Mat-Su Borough isn’t without the threat of natural disasters. An area of the borough southwest of Wasilla known as Big Lake sustained one of the state’s most destructive wildfires in 1996 that left hundreds of people without homes. In the late summer of 2006, major flooding downed bridges and washed out roads further north. The region is also vulnerable to seismic activity.

Brodigan said the truck would enable first responders to maintain connections with central command from distant corners of the region during emergencies.

“We get high winds about four times a year on the average,” Brodigan said. “And when I say high winds I mean 80 and 100 miles an hour, and they don’t come in and leave a few hours later. They stay for days. So everything we’ve bought so far will serve us not only for larger disasters but actually day in and day out.”

The idea of buying the vehicle came in part from Palin’s former police chief, Fannon, and was supposed to serve as an extension to a new emergency dispatch center Wasilla finished building in 2004, considered a major achievement of Palin’s mayoral term along with the construction of a sports complex.

In the years immediately following 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security distributed some of its grants in equal proportions to states and based others on population. The actual likelihood of a terrorist attack occurring in one place over another wasn’t a major consideration. Since that time, direct homeland security grants for Alaska have begun to diminish, which Brodigan admits is reasonable.

“I think the chance of this area having a 9/11-type event is remote compared to larger areas in the lower 48 and the different infrastructure down there,” Brodigan said. “So I understand the cutback and I certainly agree with it.”

Before then, however, the borough also purchased a $427,000 hazardous materials truck that serves as a mobile decontamination system and includes a computer program for plotting potentially deadly chemical plumes. It’s kept at a fire station in downtown Wasilla. Another $325,000 in grants enabled the borough to obtain 92 digital radios that comply with the state’s interoperable communications initiative.

In other instances, Wasilla found a way to finance public safety and law enforcement projects through additional types of non-local assistance, such as earmarks shepherded with the help of a Washington lobbyist the city hired while Palin was mayor.

Wasilla negotiated for two or three years with neighboring towns over a plan to consolidate dispatch services regionally. Until then, the city paid fees to nearby Palmer for the service but wanted greater control over the system, said former borough fire chief Jack Krill Sr.

When the issue of control could not be resolved Wasilla went its own way and created the Wasilla Regional Dispatch Center, or MatCom as it’s known. It was built using a $1 million federal appropriation secured in 2001 before Palin left office. The earmark was in one of the first major appropriations bills signed by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, known as the Combating Terrorism Act.

The city secured yet another $750,000 earmark the following year for the center from an omnibus appropriations bill, while $600,000 more in Justice Department grants later paid for the installation of a computer-aided dispatch system. Not to be outdone, neighboring Palmer joined the fray and won a similar amount in federal aid for its own computerized dispatch upgrades.

Jack Krill Jr., who became the borough’s fire chief after his father retired but eventually left for a job in Idaho, said the community where he used to work “is not big enough to run millions of dollars into two different systems.”

“It seemed like kind of a waste of money, because they were both doing their own software and they weren’t necessarily compatible with each other,” Krill said.

Another of Palin’s accomplishments, the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex, was financed with $14.7 million in bond sales authorized by local voters in 2002, but the city ended up paying $1.3 million more than expected following a land dispute. Officials had hoped from the beginning that it could double as an emergency evacuation facility, though there wasn’t enough money available at the time, according to complex manager Bruce Urban.

So as governor, Palin last year secured a $630,000 appropriation from the state’s budget allowing the complex to add on an industrial-sized kitchen and serve residents needing shelter if necessary. The funding led to charges that Palin was biased toward her hometown because elsewhere she’d made big spending cuts – including dozens of sports-related projects around Alaska, according to local press accounts.

Urban said that if a major disaster occurred in the area again, residents wouldn’t need to fill up the local schools and prevent students from continuing classes. School buildings and churches were used to house victims of the Big Lake fire.

“Can we use [the kitchen] for purposes other than an evacuation shelter? Well, of course we can,” Urban said. “We can use it for banquets, we can use it for luncheons, we can use it for a number of things.”

Statewide, Alaska has also enjoyed the clout of two senior Republicans — Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens — well known for delivering earmarks to their constituents that are frequently criticized as pork. Both have recently been mired in corruption probes; a jury found Stevens guilty this month of failing to report $250,000 in gifts. After Sept. 11, many such appropriations took on a new sense of urgency, expedited for the purpose of securing the homeland.

Congress made establishing interoperable communications between local, state, and federal officials a top priority after 9/11, and the Alaska Land Mobile Radio system is considered one of the most advanced in the country, heavily backed by $80 million worth of earmarks written by Stevens into several defense appropriations bills.

Local authorities then used homeland security grants for digital equipment that allowed them to become subscribers to the network. About 3,000 national defense personnel stationed in the state are also today connected to it, said Heather Handyside, a deputy city manager for Anchorage who sat on an executive council overseeing the initiative.

In fact, Handyside, also Anchorage’s former homeland security and emergency management director, faced grumbling from local emergency responders working inside the Anchorage municipality because she emphasized communications improvements with the city’s own grant money while other areas indulged in bomb robots, boats, and anti-ballistics apparel.

“I know a lot of communities were buying new rigs for responders, the fancy gadgets. … We were trying to do what we thought would make the most sense,” Handyside said. “ … I think in the early years it was such an incredible administrative process in terms of purchasing things and figuring out the grant procedures; that played a huge role in why things may have gotten muddled in the smaller communities, because it takes a level of administration that’s maybe not there.”

That wasn’t the end of national security appropriations in Alaska. What began as a $100 million port overhaul in Anchorage before 9/11 has morphed into a $700 million expansion project presided over by a former governor, Bill Sheffield, who’s well connected to Young and Stevens. Port officials say that more than half of the project’s costs will be covered by federal funds, and at least $150 million has already been steered by Young and Stevens toward the project through defense, transportation, and homeland security appropriations, according to the Daily News and the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks earmarks.

Environmentalists complain that the project’s large, new design could threaten beluga whale and salmon habitats located in the area because it calls for 135 acres of wetlands to be filled in. Proponents, however, argue the port’s size is needed to better serve cruise ships and to stage the swift deployment of troops based in Alaska if needed.

“The port’s important, we recognize that,” said Bob Shavelson, executive director of the Anchorage environmental nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper. “But there’s no demonstrated need for an expansion this size. … They’ve wrapped this project in a shroud of homeland security to legitimize it when in fact the project can’t stand scrutiny.”

When 2,000 competitors gathered in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula for the Arctic Winter Games two years ago, organizers realized they were facing a large budget deficit. Stevens saved the day again with a $500,000 earmark folded into a defense-spending bill that his office said included a fund for ensuring security at international sporting events like the Olympics. The federal government had already spent $5.2 million to help build out the peninsula’s rural arctic infrastructure for the games and prepare its tiny regional airport for suddenly becoming a major point of entry by international travelers into the United States.

Tim Dillon, general manager of the games, said the $500,000 was used for “all homeland security related things” and explained that event coordinators had to brace for potential landslides and activity from the nearby Augustine Volcano, which began steaming during the competition.

“Not only did we do a background check on every single volunteer but we needed to make sure that everything was secure,” Dillon said. “You had 350 athletes being housed at Kenai High School — we had to make sure that there was no way an outsider could just go walking into that school and wind up in the sleeping quarters or bedroom or bathroom of the participants.”

The group Taxpayers for Common Sense nonetheless designated the earmark as pork, as did one member of Congress in particular: Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“The cumulative effect of these earmarks is the erosion of the integrity of the appropriations process, and by extension, our responsibility to the taxpayer,” McCain said on the Senate floor in December of 2005 after listing each of the earmarks slipped into the bill by Stevens and other lawmakers.

Stevens has even found cash that allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to test pilotless Predator aircraft over Alaska’s vast, minimally active airspace.

As for Don Young, an aide to the Alaska representative pleaded guilty to charges made by federal prosecutors last year that he formed an illegal relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Prosecutors alleged that the aide, Mark Zachares, handed Abramoff privileged information about the 2002 creation of the Homeland Security Department, the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. Zachares hoped to eventually win a high-level position at DHS, according to the charging papers, and special knowledge of its inner workings could have benefited Abramoff’s contractor clients.

Young remains under investigation today by the FBI for possible corruption, but it’s not clear where that probe could go, though documents have already surfaced publicly showing a relationship between Abramoff and Young.

Anchorage resident Diane Benson launched two attempts as a Democrat to defeat Young in the last four years arguing that Alaska should expand social services and reach out to military families and veterans with the same zeal it displays in obtaining military contracts and financing for homeland security projects.

She surprised observers in 2006 by coming relatively close with 40 percent of the vote against Young, pounding on his associations with Abramoff clients. Benson lost a primary race this year but still managed to do the unthinkable for a former Green Party member — attract a sizable number of military votes.

“The oil boom brought in an influx of people and from that emerged a new politics,” Benson, a former truck driver on the Alaska Pipeline, said of her home state. “This is what we’ve come to be — a state that is in some ways obsessed with money. The irony is you hear these strong individualistic notions in this state that we’re fiercely proud of, and at the same time we’re just sucking on the tit of the federal government.”

This story was co-published by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Truthdig.com shortly before the 2008 presidential election.

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