DENVER (AP) – Gov. John Hickenlooper is preparing to re-assign responsibility of a federal anti-terrorism grant program for the third time in a decade — and this time, he said he doesn’t want the state to lose track of spending records.
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, the third state agency to manage the grant program expanded after Sept. 11, 2001, does not have a computer database that lists everything Colorado governments bought with the $354 million in federal funds.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Hickenlooper said of the lack of complete records. He said it was “not malevolence” but an “unintended consequence” of shuffling the program among state agencies.
The problem is a technology issue, Hickenlooper said, adding that 77 percent of state software is at least 7 years old. The governor called it “critically important” for the state to have a centralized record of homeland security spending in order to evaluate how efficiently Colorado has used those federal dollars.
The Denver Post sent multiple requests under public-records laws in a first-ever attempt to find out what anti-terrorism equipment Colorado purchased with the grant money flowing to the state since 2002.
Since 9/11, Colorado has invested millions of dollars in big-ticket items such as hazardous-materials trucks and massive command posts on wheels, and tens of millions of dollars for everything from mobile radios and firefighter gear to duct tape and toys for bomb dogs.
Details of equipment purchases from grant years 2003 through 2006 — when the Department of Local Affairs was keeping records and the state received $125 million in homeland security money — are largely missing from the state database. Voluminous paper records of those purchases are tucked away in file cabinets in the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, and adding them to the state’s electronic records would be a monumental task.
The Post asked the Department of Local Affairs in May for a detailed equipment-purchase list and was referred to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security.
On Friday afternoon, department spokeswoman Linda Rice said that the report prepared by the governor’s office was incomplete and that her agency can retrieve a list of equipment purchases through 2006 from the state database. That information, however, was not immediately available.
In Colorado, the Department of Public Safety kept records for the grant year 2002, which included purchases made as late as 2004. Then the state Department of Local Affairs took charge, before it had to pass those duties off to the governor’s office because of accounting problems.
Now Hickenlooper is considering moving the program out of his office and back under the umbrella of the Department of Public Safety.
Hickenlooper’s move would undo former Gov. Bill Ritter’s creation in 2008 of a new state homeland security office, a reaction to harsh criticism in federal and state audits.
A 2007 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report questioned the propriety of about $7.8 million in homeland security grants to Colorado. And a 2005 state audit found Colorado mishandled the federal funds and provided inadequate oversight. The state ultimately had to repay $1.5 million to the federal government.
Regardless of which state agency was in charge of the program, record-keeping in the state’s nine “all-hazard” regions also was inconsistent.
In the west region, for example, coordinator Christy Laney has kept meticulous track of spending — but her records only go back to when she was hired a year and a half ago. She never received electronic records from the previous coordinator, and paper records are stored in the basement of the Gunnison County Courthouse.
In northeastern Colorado, fiscal agents “strewn about” the region spend the federal cash but don’t keep all receipts in a regional office.
“One of the emergency managers is over 600 miles away round-trip,” said coordinator Jon Surbeck, who has been at the job less than a year. The region has had several fiscal agents — the ones spending the grant money — over the years.
It’s a similar story in the southeast region, where coordinator Susie Wickman took over in March and has spotty records, grant applications and invoices prior to 2006.
“In 2003 and 2004, it’s just real lacking,” she said. “I’m sure the state has a project book. I’m sure they have something.”
A list of purchases provided to The Post by the governor’s office has gaping omissions because of the missing years of data.
For example, the Denver region has five emergency command vehicles, each purchased and equipped for $388,000. None shows up in the state database. Three were listed in records the regional office provided separately to The Post.
PROBLEMS ACROSS STATE
In the south-central region, which extends from Colorado Springs to Leadville, four hazmat trucks have been purchased and equipped at a cost of nearly $400,000 each. The region also bought four mass-decontamination trucks capable of showering hundreds of people exposed to dangerous chemicals. None appears in the state database.
Two Sno-Cats purchased in 2004 for Gunnison and Hinsdale counties in western Colorado are not on the state list. Neither is the $220,000 hazmat truck parked at a Gunnison firehouse.
State officials said the program’s nine regions have produced all invoices required since 2006 and that legally they do not have to keep grant records before 2006. The law allows them to shred records three years after a grant is closed.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government offered little guidance with the billions of dollars it handed states to pay for equipment and training for first responders. Local fire and police officials shopped from an approved list of equipment some call the “Sears catalog.”
Each department that housed the program had a different system of keeping records, one reason there’s not a single complete database. It would take hundreds of hours of manual data entry or tens of thousands of dollars to perform a “data dump” and create a complete account, said Mike Wagner, planning program supervisor for the governor’s homeland security office. The Department of Local Affairs disputes that.
Part of the challenge is that Colorado is a “home-rule state,” meaning local governments have autonomy over local spending decisions. The state homeland security office doesn’t order a region to fire its emergency manager or grant coordinator, even if records are missing. And the state allows regions to decide whether to invest in radios or mass-fatality trailers. Statewide committees review local requests, but local officials set their own priorities.
” `You send us the money, and we’ll determine the best way to spend it’ — that’s sort of the way it works,” Wagner said.
At a Department of Local Affairs office down the hall, Wagner recently found equipment budget requests for 2003 and a paper list of all equipment purchases in 2004 — including the $2.3 million for four hazmat vehicles and four decontamination trailers in the south-central region. But when his office queries its database for 2004 equipment purchases, it draws a blank for entire regions of the state.
And if homeland security programs are moved back to the Department of Public Safety, all the computerized records that do exist may have to be exported to a different system.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)