EDITORIAL: Washington’s anti-terrorism handouts

Federal funding is sweet manna from heaven, as far as local and state officials are concerned. The dollars bolster budgets and support special projects without requiring cuts to other programs that, the public is assured, are far too important to sacrifice. It’s free money.

Taxpayers know better, of course. They’re in the process of filing their federal returns. That “free” money, just like local sales and property tax revenues, came from their wallets — only they’re paying interest on it, too.

So pardon us for not being nearly as excited as Southern Nevada elected officials at the news that the valley was awarded $1 million in Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism funding. Tuesday’s celebratory news conference was attended by Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Rep. Steven Horsford and others. They came together to applaud their collaborative effort to get Las Vegas on the list of cities that received money.

Las Vegas was left off that list last year, which raised plenty of eyebrows and tempers around town. Southern Nevadans certainly remember that five of the 9/11 terrorists who piloted hijacked jetliners visited Las Vegas in the months before the 2001 East Coast attacks. Las Vegas has one of the country’s busiest airports and a dense resort corridor visited by millions of people from around the world. A terrorist attack, regardless of scale, would be devastating to the valley’s tourism trade, and governments and industry must take every step possible to prevent such an event.

“We are a target,” Mrs. Goodman said Tuesday. “Don’t let us ever forget that.”

But if that’s true, why are officials relying on a tiny federal handout to prevent terrorism? A million bucks is peanuts compared with the billions of dollars spent every year by local governments and the trillions spent by Washington. If $1 million is a make-or-break figure for a critical local anti-terror initiative, a program needed to save lives, the city and county have an obligation to allocate the money immediately, without waiting for Washington to dole out a few dimes.

The City Council authorized spending about $100,000 on school district programs last year despite having no role in education oversight or governance. Local governments routinely fork over multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlements. The county just set aside millions of dollars for new equestrian facilities. And they can’t come up with $1 million for terrorism prevention and response?

Good grief, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is facing a $50 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — $50 million! — and Mr. Gillespie has made it clear he does not favor covering the entire amount with reserves. Yet some of the very same politicians who refuse to make the department a funding priority will stand before cameras to talk about the importance of a $1 million grant?

Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t about making Las Vegas a significantly safer place. It was about our local governments elbowing into a spot at the federal trough. Homeland Security is spreading $578 million among 39 cities in a predictably inefficient, politicized manner with absolutely no accountability. Since 2001, tens of billions of dollars in Homeland Security grants have been used by state and local governments to buy equipment that often goes unused and, sometimes, isn’t even related to terrorism. A study sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., identified staggering waste, including the costs of San Diego emergency responders who attended a five-day anti-terrorism conference at a spa that included a “zombie apocalypse” demonstration.

Reminder: The federal government has more than $17 trillion in debt. Federal money most definitely isn’t “free.” If we want to keep our community and our visitors safe, we shouldn’t rely on Washington for help.