Officials defend use of security grants

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Occasionally, the Planned Parenthood offices in Williston receive a suspicious package that employees are wary of opening. The Williston Police Department is called.

Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden said the department does not have the tools to inspect the contents of the package without opening it. So, typically, if there are no wires sticking out of the package, officers “very gingerly” remove the package from the offices and open it outside.

“We shouldn’t be doing that,” Glidden said. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”

Glidden cites the Planned Parenthood example to explain the usefulness of the homeland security grants that police, fire and rescue departments across the country have received over the past three years.

Critics assert much of the homeland security funding has gone to smaller communities at little risk from a terrorist attack. They say many of the items purchased have nothing to do with security.

The grants, Williston officials say, have helped both police and firefighters acquire equipment they otherwise might not have been able to afford.

For instance, Williston police secured a grant last year to purchase a portable X-ray machine that it would be able to use to inspect suspicious packages.

Most recently, the Williston police and fire departments were approved for a combined $101,542 in homeland security grants this month. Town Manager Rick McGuire still must approve the acceptance of the grant money, and the Selectboard will review the equipment the grant funding would purchase at its May 2 meeting.

Both Glidden and Morton declined to discuss the specific items the new grant funding would purchase because they had not yet met with the Selectboard.

The grants represent a big addition to the departments’ budgets. They appear to make Williston an example of what critics complain is too many of the federal homeland security dollars going to small towns.

Some have questioned whether the grants amount to pork barrel spending. Lauren Cook, a media associate with Citizens Against Government Waste, said the 2005 Homeland Security appropriations bill, which totals $4 billion, features $1.7 billion in pork barrel spending.

Cook said the bill too often “supports programs riddled with waste and abuse.”

However, both Glidden and Morton say there has been no waste in Williston’s homeland security purchases. Nothing, they say, sits in storage unused.

“The things we have bought are all things we can use to prepare for (a terrorist attack), but also they are things we can use on a day-to-day basis,” Morton said. “These things are not just sitting on a shelf waiting for the big one.”

Municipal officials say the equipment purchases improve public safety workers’ ability to respond to major events, whether they result from a terrorist attack or not. For instance, upgraded radio equipment allows firefighters and police officers to communicate with each other and neighboring departments in a way they could not before, producing a more coherent, organized approach to a disaster.

Extrication equipment used to remove people from cars in auto accidents could also help firefighters rescue people trapped in a building collapsed by a bomb. Thermal imaging cameras used to fight fires and locate hidden suspects would be used for similar purposes during a terrorist attack.

Williston’s homeland security grants place it in the norm among Vermont municipalities. The Williston Police Department’s recent approval for $61,300 in grant money stands alongside $61,410 for Winooski, $82,044 for Stowe and $133,378 for Springfield. The fire department’s $40,242 can be measured against $43,975 for Beecher Falls, $62,000 for Bradford and $49,199 for Cabot.

In fact, the amount raises the question: “Why hasn’t Williston sought more homeland security funding?”

Morton said the answer is restraint. Both Morton and Glidden say the equipment they have purchased with the grants has been limited to items they would have sought in their operating and capital budgets.

Municipal officials argue the funding is particularly appropriate in Williston because it is home to multiple potential targets. The town might not present as obvious a target as New York or Washington, but there are reasons Williston could be the site of a domestic terrorism attack, officials say.

“It might not seem likely, but it’s definitely possible,” Glidden said. “We’re close to Vermont’s largest city, we have the largest commercial base in the state, we’re part of the prime interstate corridor, we’re 80 miles from Montreal — a place we know terrorists have been. We’re 40 miles from the Canadian border, which is not that heavily guarded and which it would not be that difficult to walk across or to smuggle something across.”

Williston is home to four federal buildings, including Homeland Security Department offices. The town also includes the Vermont State Police barracks, a hazardous waste disposal facility, a propane line that runs from Canada to the southeastern United States and some shipping companies.

“You add up all those things and our risk is enormous,” Morton said. “If I was a terrorist, I would think, ‘What better place is there to make an impact in the state of Vermont than Williston?’”

Morton and Glidden attended a domestic terrorism preparedness exercise on Saturday for Chittenden County public safety officials. Morton said the potential incidents involving Williston that were reviewed as test scenarios were both “believable and logical.”

Over the past three years, since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, Vermont has received $54.8 million in federal grant money for public safety departments. The previous three years, the state received $1.1 million for the same purpose.

The 2005 federal budget included approximately $1.1 billion in grants to be distributed to the states. Under a funding formula that Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has claimed a hand in devising, each state could receive no less than 0.75 percent of the total pot. The Bush Administration’s initial budget proposal for 2006 reduced that number to 0.25 percent, directing more money to heavily populated areas.

Morton hopes the new supply of money does not dry up, but says the past three years have been fruitful.

“We’re just happy to have had the opportunity to improve our equipment and to get better prepared,” Morton said.