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Homeland Security Pays Dividends for Alaska
Posted on Oct 31, 2008
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. An additional $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 nonlocal assistance, such as earmarks shepherded in part by a Washington lobbyist the city hired while Palin was mayor.
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When the issue of control could not be resolved, Wasilla went its own way and created 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’s retirement 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.
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 9/11, many such appropriations took on a new sense of urgency, expedited for the purpose of securing the homeland.
Congress made establishing interoperable communications among 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 antiballistics 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.”
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