Why was $11,700 in homeland-security grant money used in Michigan for the purchase of “Sno-Cone” machines for several counties? That is what a member of the House Homeland Security Committee is demanding to know from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., chairman of the Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee, says in a letter to FEMA Director Craig Fugate released on Wednesday that he wants to know if the agency was even aware that the shaved-ice dessert machines were purchased, and he suggests the episode raises questions about oversight of homeland-security funding.
“Will FEMA require the state of Michigan to sell or return the 13 dessert machines and use the $11,700 for a legitimate homeland-security investment?” Bilirakis also asks in his letter to Fugate.
In response, FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said on Wednesday that the agency “is reviewing the chairman’s letter and shares his commitment to ensuring that all federal homeland-security grant dollars are used as intended, in the best interests of communities and taxpayers.”
Racusen also noted that the purchase of the machines predates the Obama administration.
“We have been conducting our own review into the details of how these machines were purchased in 2008 – before our current leadership put in place more stringent review and oversight processes,” Racusen said. “Let us be clear: While these machines may serve a legitimate medical support function, this administration does not consider using these machines to make snow cones or for other non-emergency or preparedness-related needs during outreach events an acceptable use of taxpayer dollars.”
Bilirakis footnotes his source of information as a news article initially published on Dec. 3 by The Daily News, which serves Greenville, Belding, and the Montcalm County, Mich., area. Its opening line: “The United States is fighting terrorism -- one snow cone at a time.” The paper reported that questions were being raised by some Montcalm County commissioners about why and how the 13 machines had been funded with federal emergency funds. The matter got wider attention on Dec. 8, when The Colbert Report did a satirical report on it.
Bilirakis’s letter to Fugate goes on to explain that it has since come to his attention that the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission – the agency responsible for administering the Homeland Security Grant Program funds in 13 Michigan counties – was the agency that spent the money for the machines.
His letter incredulously points out that the “official cost justification” submitted for the purchase of the machines by the regional administration was that, “This tool can be used at public education and outreach events to entice volunteers to stop by recruitment booths and receive public education about promotional material about Citizens Corps and preparedness activities – along with shaved ice.”
But by this rationale, complains Bilirakis in his letter, “any amusements that might appeal to community residents for purposes of outreach, such as balloons, entertainers, and popcorn machines, would qualify as homeland-security equipment.” In fact, according to the initial local blog item about the purchases, one Michigan county requested a popcorn machine but was denied.
Bilirakis also takes issue with a rationale for buying the shaved-ice machines that he says was later given by the regional development commission’s director – that “these ice rehabilitation machines will assist with treating the onset of heat exhaustion and stroke during large scale events or activities – including possible terrorist incidents or similar emergencies.”
Michigan emergency officials also sought to justify the usefulness of the machines by suggesting they could be used to make ice packs. And in another effort at fending off questions about the legitimacy of the purchase, a Montcalm County Emergency Services director suggested the machines be referred to as “ice shavers,” rather than Sno-Cone machines, despite the fact that they were emblazoned with the advertisement: “Ice Cold Sno-Cones, Refreshing.”
“While I will agree that snow cones are a refreshing treat, at a time when budgets are strained and the government is looking for ways to cut costs, it is unacceptable to be using taxpayer dollars meant to protect our country on these kinds of items," Bilirakis said in a statement. "This particular instance makes me wonder what else homeland security dollars are being used for, and makes me skeptical about FEMA's ability to ensure that these funds are not being squandered."
Racusen said that FEMA is making sure the machines are being used in adherence with grant guidelines.
“As we review this situation, FEMA has also reached out to the state to clarify how these machines are being used and will take appropriate action – if needed – to ensure that the state is complying with grant guidelines and only using these resources for their intended purpose,'' Racusen said. "We will continue to ensure strong oversight and accountability for all state, local, and other entities that receive homeland security funds and will continue to work with our congressional partners on those efforts.”