Three days after Washington announced plans to award $2.5 billion this year in homeland security grants, the city council of a suburban Alabama city voted to create its own Department of Homeland Security and Immigration.
It didn't matter that some residents and a council member, Mike Natter, argued that Hoover (population 65,000) was under no threat from terrorism.
Newly elected Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos, a former Republican state lawmaker, expects his new office to be like like flypaper for homeland security grants.
After the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, politics couldn't help itself.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the co-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Homeland Security Task Force, said that within days of 9/11, any town "worth its city core" did threat assessments to later tap the veins of new federal funding.
Much of the distribution of these first-responder grants, conceived with good intentions, has been driven by political motives, according to reports from the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and the American Enterprise Institute, one of Washington's most conservative political think tanks.
Now, four years into the rush to safeguard the nation, the grants have been picked over by pork-barrel politics, rewarding some home districts that don't appear to be under any terrorist threat. Money was used for programs unrelated to terrorism.
"Politicians are going to be politicians whether we are in a crisis or not," said American Enterprise Institute research analyst Veronique de Rugy. "Homeland security is this new hot topic, and as soon as you say, `This is to protect the homeland,' you can't say no to it."
Last fall, de Rugy's report "What Does Homeland Security Spending Buy?" showed grant money going to programs dealing with drug prevention, highway improvements and child pornography.
Likewise, when the House Select Committee on Homeland Security interviewed local officials from across the nation two years ago, it found examples of dubious spending:
A rural county in western Washington state spent $63,000 on hazmat equipment, and then packed it away indefinitely. It had no hazmat team.
A North Carolina county bought a $44,000 decontamination trailer with showers and expected to use it only on farmers exposed to chemicals and pesticides.
Ten Texas towns pooled their homeland security money and bought an $800,000 rescue truck and support vehicle to use for car accidents and floods.
Closer to home, Baltimore County bought a $13,750 SearchCam 2000 Victim Location System.
It's a rescue tool that uses a camera and microphone on a remote-controlled probe to look for victims buried in rubble, like at Ground Zero.
More than two years later, the county has used the SearchCam only in training and to inspect the safety of damaged buildings before sending in firefighters, said Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost.
"Though it is part of our preparedness for homeland security issues," Armacost explained in an e-mail, "it is also an extremely valuable tool for complicated rescues and building collapses that are not homeland security related."
As for Hoover, Petelos came to Washington this month to meet with his Alabama congressional delegation.
They discussed Hoover's "illegal alien" population from South America, Petelos said. The mayor said he stressed the need to use Hoover's homeland security office to police the Hispanic day laborers who congregate on roadways soliciting work.
Petelos didn't ask for grant money to pay for the department's $150,000 budget, which consists mostly of salaries. Homeland security grants don't generally cover personnel.
But Hoover recently bought a $350,000 heavy rescue firetruck with homeland security grant money, Petelos said, and Hoover's new office will be a liaison to Washington for more of those types of grants.
"Homeland security starts from the bottom up," he said. "Hoover is taking a lead on this."
Asked if Baltimore had plans to follow Hoover's lead, O'Malley grinned and shook his head: "I already have a Department of Homeland Security - it's called the police and fire departments."