County's surplus military equipment prompts debate - it is a bonus or burden?

Humvees, boat, tactical truck acquired

Hugh G. Willett

LOUDON — The Loudon County Commission on Monday will consider a request from the county Office of Homeland Security for a $34,400 budget increase to maintain and operate emergency preparedness equipment donated by the federal government. Law enforcement and emergency response leaders are enthusiastic about having access to the emergency equipment.
Some community members question the additional maintenance cost, wonder why it’s really needed and argue county homeland security officials are acting autonomously without proper review by the county.
The question, to Commissioner Brian Jenkins, is whether the county can afford ongoing maintenance and operation costs for the extra equipment.
“Even free stuff isn’t free,” he said.
Jenkins, a detective with the Loudon Police Department, said he believes the equipment is a valuable resource. He said he is leaning towards supporting the budget increase but wants to understand the long-term costs. “The county budget is tight right now,” he said.
Loudon’s Office of Homeland Security, formerly known as the Emergency Management Agency, is staffed by Director Daryl Smith and an assistant. The office operates on a yearly budget of $156,472.
Smith’s department, located at the county E-911 offices behind a fence with a sign that last week read “Fort Smith,” has amassed a fleet of re-purposed and cast-off U.S. military equipment including Humvees, heavy trucks and a 32-foot boat. “Daryl Smith has been doing an outstanding job of upgrading the emergency management capabilities of the county,” Jenkins said.

In a Sept. 10 letter to the commission’s budget committee, a dozen community law enforcement and emergency response officials expressed their support for the budget increase. The budget committee recommended an increase of $23,000.

At its Monday meeting, the commission could decide to approve the recommended amount or the entire $34,400 request. 7 Humvees, a boat, tactical truck
According to Smith, the biggest expense associated with the acquisition of the equipment is the cost of transportation to the county, which has a population of about 50,000, from the military and government facilities that release them.
Of all the equipment transferred, a 32-foot boat is perhaps most significant, Smith said. Equipped with twin 225 horsepower engines, a radar and GPS, the boat will provide a work platform for marine operations for all first response agencies including the rescue divers, he said.
The boat, which is valued at an estimated $150,000 when operational, would require about $17,000 in materials and hardware upgrades. The labor on the boat is being provided by volunteers. If the budget amendment is approved the boat could be on the water in 60 days, Smith said.
The fleet also includes seven Humvees, one 10-ton HEMTT (heavy expanded mobility tactical truck), five 5-ton vehicles, a 25kW three-phase generator and a 60K BTU environmental unit.
“Additionally, the required equipment must be maintained with the usual expense of oil changes, fuel, tires, batteries and lighting,” the committee’s letter states. An additional $17,400 was requested for operations and maintenance.
Smith said the county must maintain the equipment in inventory for one year. Equipment that becomes too expensive to maintain can be scrapped and exchanged with equipment that is in better shape.
“We’re not going to keep any equipment that needs a lot of work,” he said.
Handy to have?
Lenoir City Director of Public Safety Don White said the new equipment especially the boat, will be a welcome resource in emergencies and special situations.
“We don’t necessarily need these things on a daily basis, but they will be important when we need them,” he said.
White pointed to May 2011 flooding in Nashville in which the water rose nearly 40 feet. Situated on Fort Loudoun Lake, Lenoir City could be vulnerable to such a disaster, he said. The boat, which might be fitted with a water cannon, would also be useful in putting out marine fires, he said.
The Humvees could come in handy in case of heavy snow or natural disasters such as the F-3 tornado that struck Lenoir City in 1993. White said he remembers being unable to drive police cruisers down the streets of the city due to telephone poles downed by the tornado. “A Humvee can just drive right over those downed poles,” he said.
City of Loudon Police Chief James “Bear” Webb also signed the letter asking for more funding. Webb said the Homeland Security Office provides a strong back-up to the city’s emergency resources. Small cities such as Loudon can’t afford to budget for emergency preparedness equipment that might only be used occasionally, he said. “I think it’s an excellent investment for the county,” he said.

Tellico Village resident Pandora Vreeland said she is concerned that the Homeland Security Office did not seek approval of an operating and maintenance budget before acquiring the equipment. She also questioned the need for some of it. “Doesn’t the Tennessee National Guard have Humvees we could borrow in the event of an emergency?” she said.
Wayne Schnell, a leader in the Loudon County Tea Party, plans to speak before the commission about the request. He said he would have preferred that County Commission conducted a study on long-term maintenance and cost of operation before accepting the equipment.