Heck of a Job, County

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Got any extra food at your house? I'm not begging. I have my own extra food. I'm just doing a wacko check on myself.

I have extra food. I have extra water. I have extra shotgun shells. No, you can't have any. They're for me. And my family. And as soon as I decide whether I've turned into wack-job--well, come to think of it, that won't make any difference--I'm going to go out and get some more extra stuff, because I have just finished perusing the report Dallas County commissioners received last week on the county's level of emergency preparedness.

It reminds me of a joke we used to think was hilarious when I was a little kid. They were teaching us to "duck and cover" under our desks in the event of a nuclear holocaust. The joke was about the real way to deal with an A-bomb: Stand with your feet apart, bend forward as far as you can and kiss your ass goodbye. When a generation of 5-year-olds is laughing at jokes like that, the nation needs to prepare for rough times ahead.

The county commissioners' original plan was to break the law and hold its recent briefing on emergency preparedness in secret. Thank goodness The Dallas Morning News got on their case and made them do it in public. And what a typical example it was of what public officials try to keep secret:

We're screwed! Bird flu, hurricanes, dirty bombs, I don't care what it is. We're screwed! They haven't done jack! You know that jack-leg dingleberry computer system that lost everybody in the jail? They took all the Homeland Security money and spent it on that! We're screwed!

I got food. I have bottled water. I have ammo. I knew it! I knew it! I watched all those people on the news standing on the overpasses in New Orleans, and the bizarre scene with President Bush speaking from Jackson Square--all lit up and hunch-shouldered like the phantom of the opera with St. Louis Cathedral behind him, oh, man, did that ever give me the willies--and I said to my wife, "We are totally on our own."

Let me get my breath here. I'm OK. Couple deep, deep breaths, and I'm going to be just fine.

Dallas County is not prepared for squat. You know what we have? One guy. In an office. The homeland security director.

Know what Collin County has? A staff of 14 people in a 4,900-square-foot center. Denton County? Eight people in a 20,000-square-foot building remodeled at a cost of $1.5 million, a $10 million computer system and a 450-foot radio tower. City of Houston, Harris County, Bexar County--they have all spent their federal money setting up substantial infrastructure.

I had a long, very interesting conversation last week with Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, who has been trying for two years to get the other commissioners to stop pouring all of their Homeland Security money into that nutty computer system.

"This has been the crux of the issue for me and the court," she said.

Keliher believes the new computer system, even if it works, doesn't have any real connection to homeland security. "All the system does is computerize the time a person is arrested until the case is disposed of."

According to a half-million-dollar audit by Microsoft, the new system, developed by the county from scratch at a cost of $17 million, does 54 percent of what it's supposed to do for the county court system and 30 percent for the jail.

Keliher cited instance after instance where she said the dominant cabal on the county court--Commissioners Mike Cantrell, Kenneth Mayfield and Maurine Dickey--insisted on pouring all the available Homeland Security money into the troubled computer system in desperate attempts to bail it out.

"About two and a half years ago, when we were talking about what we were going to do with the Homeland Security money that comes to us from the feds, I asked if this was the only thing we had to spend money on. I said, 'Is this it? Is this all we've got? This is the only need we have? Have you gone in and talked to the sheriff's department or our constables?'"

She said Cantrell, the main champion of the computer system, told her the new system will enhance homeland security when other counties and cities plug into it, creating a broad regional network of shared information. But if its main homeland security value is regional, Keliher wondered, why is Dallas County footing all of the enormous development and start-up costs?

"I mean, the other counties are getting to use their Homeland Security money the way they want to, and yet I'm using my Homeland Security money to buy a system for them. Why is that taking up our Homeland Security money?

"I said, 'Well, if it's worth something to them, then have them pay for it.' This has been the ongoing battle for me and the court."

Cantrell doesn't dispute the basic facts offered by Keliher. He concedes that the new computer system, mainly his baby, has been the beneficiary of the county's Homeland Security money. He agrees that Dallas County is developing a system it will eventually give away to other counties. But he says that's all a good thing, and Keliher's failure to appreciate it demonstrates that "she has no vision."

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