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Is N.C. Homeland Security Money Being 'Thrown Away?' WRAL Investigates

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A conservative political organization is raising concerns about how counties are spending federal money meant to help in case of a terrorist attack or other large-scale disaster.

Since 2002, the Department of Homeland Security has granted about $168.5 million to North Carolina to prepare for such an emergency situation.

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    Among the items and supplies purchased with the money are sport utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, motor homes and photo ID machines -- all things that county officials say they are allowed to buy.

    But some critics say they are also bad examples of how to spend Homeland Security funding.

    "What you're doing is taking money away that should go to fighting terrorism, which -- let's face it -- is the original impetus for setting these dollars up in the first place," said John Hood, president of the

    John Locke Foundation

    , an independent, nonprofit think tank that, according to its Web site, works "for truth, for freedom and for the future of North Carolina."

    Hood believes taking money from high-risk cities to spend on low-risk areas is like throwing money away.

    "It's not a question of a scandal that raises questions," Hood said. "It's simply, 'Is this the right priority?'"

    Chatham County purchased a new $110,000 motor home that has barely been used. Caswell County purchased a $38,000 Dodge Durango that's used every day -- a take-home vehicle for a lieutenant with the sheriff's office.

    "I do understand why it's been so heavily scrutinized," said Caswell County Emergency Management director Jimmy Gusler. "After 9/11, the first amount of funding that came down was basically a knee-jerk reaction."

    While Gusler understands critics' concerns, he also sees a need for purchasing such items.

    "Do I think there will be a terrorism event in Caswell County?" Gusler said. "Probably not. Do I think there could be one in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro or other cities? I think there's a possibility."

    He says his equipment could provide backup -- like it did with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts when emergency workers took his Ford pickup truck to New Orleans.

    In 2003, nearly half of all North Carolina counties used Homeland Security funding to buy sport utility vehicles and trucks so that they can haul hazardous material trailers. The trailers, however, don't get used much, so having a vehicle that detaches from it is what Gusler considers "a smart buy."

    "I think we're being very responsible with the money," he said. "These aren't sitting around gathering dust."

    Chatham County officials hope to use the county's mobile command center for search-and-rescue operations, as well as other disasters.

    "We can run two 911 centers at one time," said Tony Tucker, Chatham County's emergency management director.

    Since it was purchased from funding issued in 2003, it's been used only a few times: once to run dispatch during a Halloween celebration on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street; once when the 911 center lost power; and a few other times for missing persons search operations.

    "It's already paid for itself," Tucker said.

    Even if the equipment helps, however, critics say it still is not fighting terrorism -- which is supposed to be the point of the federal money, they say.

    "The Department of Homeland Security is not in the police or fire business," Hood said.

    Homeland Security has recently changed the way it distributes funding. Instead of basing it on population, it now requires cities and states to compete for the cash based on need.