Heck of a Job, County

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."

"She can dis the system all she wants to," Cantrell told me. "The bottom line is, she does not like to spend a dime of money to benefit another city or another county. And if that's the case, that's a very narrow point of view. She has no vision, period."

Yeah, but, I asked him, if this new computer system is the best thing since sliced bread, homeland security-wise, how come the state's Department of Emergency Management just rated Dallas County near the bottom of its scale for preparedness? And why, in the briefing the commissioners tried to make secret, did the county's own director of Emergency Management give Dallas County four "inadequates," one "minimal" and a "limited" in scoring its preparations so far?

Cantrell said it was the judge's fault for not naming a new director of Emergency Management sooner. Keliher told me there was no point setting up a bureaucracy if all the money it would need to operate on was going to be sluiced into the computer system from here to kingdom come.

But do you get where I'm coming from at about this point? You know, with the extra food and the ammo? I don't mean to dismiss anything Cantrell said. He's a smart guy. I do tend to give Keliher more credence because she's got the agendas and the budget items and the history on paper to back her up: Almost all the money has been going into the computer system that loses the people in the jail. We just had a story in the Dallas Observer in which a lawyer said the only reliable way to find a client, now that the new system is in place, is to walk through the jail calling his name ("The Disappeared," by Jesse Hyde, February 2).

This is going to help us when the big one goes down?

We can take comfort, supposedly, in the much better emergency preparedness rating received from the state by the city of Dallas. But both Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm and Dallas Office of Emergency Management Director Kenny Shaw told me the county must play a key role in any disaster that extends beyond the city limits.

"If we had a big event like the Katrina thing where we go to the next level, they're in the chain," Shaw said. "If we have to go to the state for resources, the state asks that we go to the county first and ask them to coordinate between other cities."

So here's what I'm thinking. Let's say the city's telling the truth. They're totally up to snuff. And, hey, they have a good rating from the state to back that up.

But the big one happens. Some son-of-a-bitch toe bomber or whoever sets off a big bioterrorist toe-jam attack or whatever--we don't know what it's going to be--and all of our local units of government are called upon to respond.

The city is ship-shape and ready for war. It calls the county. The county can't come to the phone because a big hair-pulling fight has broken out over who spent all the money. But that's OK, because the state is all spiffed up and ready to roll. But the state has to call the White House, and they're all having a contest to see who can stare at the other guy the longest on the videoconference machine without talking.

He's staaaaaaring at the camera. Not saying a word. He's staaaaring at the camera. Hey. Maybe it's not a game. Maybe the toe-jam guy has done something evil to them, like a trance or a coma!

OK, my big message here is that I do not have faith right now in the ability of government to do a whole lot for me or my family in the event of catastrophe. In fact, it seems to me that government's efforts to prepare for catastrophe--across a broad spectrum from national to local--are themselves catastrophes.

So this is what I see. I see myself and my family on the roof. We've got extra food. We've got bottled water. Quite a bit of ammo. And while we're up there waiting for things to sort themselves out, I plan to pass the time reading my new manual on how to stretch and tan squirrel hides.

You think the county's computer system is from scratch? I think we're going to see things ahead that will give that particular phrase a whole new meaning.

I'm wacked out, right?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze