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Homeland Security in the Brazos Valley

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Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States saw the largest reorganization of government in 50 years with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. One of their roles: to provide funding to emergency first responders across the country, money that city government couldn't and can't provide.

"We've asked for it through the general operating budget process with the city, and unfortunately those funds are not available," said Bryan Police Chief Mike Strope. "So we're using homeland security funds that have been earmarked for law enforcement purposes this year to purchase equipment we would not otherwise obtain."

Dr. David McIntyre is a nationally-recognized homeland security expert who explained how the $40 billion budget of the department is spent.

"They really have about 20 or 25 billion that's discretionary spending because a lot of it goes to retirement and upkeep and so forth," he said, "so they have around 25 billion to distribute around the US. And most of that goes to designated federal programs. The border gets a lot of it. Bio-defense gets a lot of it. Research gets a lot. So when you actually talk about what's going out as grants and working its way down to first responders and so forth, there's about one-and-a-half billion in the nationwide formula that gets to states."

For 2004, Texas ranks second among all states and territories when it comes to the total amount of grant money allocated, garnering over five percent of the nearly 1.7 billion dollars distributed nationwide. California ranks first, and New York is third.

Local residents shouldn't be concerned of terrorism here according to officials we spoke to. But with four major cities close by, the ability for this region to be prepared for anything is critical. That's reflected in the millions of dollars distributed to cities through the department's Urban Area Security Initiative. Among the top 50 recipients: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, all within three hours of the Brazos Valley, meaning regional first responders need to be ready to help in multiple ways if terror were to strike.

"The key for local law enforcement is to work with other levels of law enforcement to exchange information and to be ready and prepared that if that event were to occur, we could be capable and ready to respond," said Strope.

Local officials say the average amount received in area counties this year is around one-hundred thousand dollars for each. It's taxpayer money from across the country coming here, just as our tax dollars go elsewhere.

"We put all our money together from all over the country, people from Bryan, people from Dallas, people from Orlando, Florida, and we buy an aircraft carrier and it goes overseas and protects all of us equally," said McIntyre. "We put all our money together and that money goes to Orlando, Florida, for homeland security doesn't help us at all."

And that means in the coming years, local agencies may have to rely more on local dollars once again. One of those towns could be Madisonville, who had the spotlight put squarely on them through a Dallas Morning News article in September. According to the story, the city was going to use homeland security moneys to purchase a $30,000 trailer, in part, for use during the annual Mushroom Festival. Madisonville's Chief of Police, George Sweetin, says the report is inaccurate.

"It's not bought for the Mushroom Festival. It's bought for first responders," Sweetin said. "It's bought to be used in disasters. We're not going to set this trailer up and let it sit there until we have a major disaster, but if we have a major fire, some type of hostage situation or we need a command post set up, that's what these funds are originally for."

Sweetin said part of the confusion lies in the fact that local first responders were going to set up the trailer to help in their coverage of the festival, but it would not be used in the actual hosting of the event. They do not have a trailer at this time.

"What we've done is play catch-up ball in homeland security with first responders nationwide, and we have a long way to go," said McIntyre. "There are, I believe, 1,800 different volunteer fire departments in the state of Texas alone. Some of them are using trucks that are 30, 35 years old."

And it's not just the volunteers who need the money. "The Bryan Police Department has received about $45,000 in homeland security funds," said Strope, "and we plan to purchase a tactical van or a utility vehicle to transport our tactical team and equipment associated with that team from one location to another."

Currently, Bryan PD uses an abandoned public transportation bus the department acquired a year ago. Prior to that, an old water department van was used beginning in 1995. Local agencies are continually upgrading their equipment since the Department of Homeland Security began sending money to states.

Burleson County's spending in 2004 is a prime example of what most agencies are doing. The over $100,000 received by the county this year was spent on new radios for law enforcement and emergency management, a repeater and dispatch console for the sheriff's office, a new truck for emergency management, and equipment for handling hazardous material.

In Madisonville, they're spending homeland security dollars on new radios, hoods for firefighters, and an accountability system to track personnel and equipment, as well as the command communication trailer.

"It's very important to the department and to the city, and also to the county," said Sweetin. "These dollars are moneys that were not available to where we can purchase additional equipment for disasters and for first responders."

"As we go down the road and as other things break down and wear out, and new technologies are developed, I see a continuing need if we are to stay prepared, to have access to federal dollars that subsidizes what state funding cannot provide," said Strope.

"The concern to my mind is not just are we spending too much money, but are we spending it in the right places," said McIntyre. "Are we spending it in ways that have long term payoff?"

McIntyre says most groups are spending their homeland cash on items that need frequent replacing, like hazmat suits. It's all part of the catching-up process. The question that remains: what future purchases will be needed, and that answer is completely unknown.