May 22, 2013
Homeland Security Pays Dividends for Alaska
Posted on Oct 31, 2008
This story was reported by G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Despite its go-it-alone spirit, sparsely populated Alaska is one of the greatest per-capita beneficiaries of federal funding among the 50 states. A major portion of those U.S. taxpayer dollars in recent years has come from large infusions of homeland security grants and appropriations handed out to the state since the 9/11 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 half the per-capita figure for the state of New York and $70 more than for each California resident.
• 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; the vehicle 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 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 9/11. 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 Gov. 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.
With the state’s receipt of federal subsidies continuing 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. 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.
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