TALLAHASSEE — Add this to the list of dubious expenditures in the name of national security: a $700,000 fence around the state of Florida Emergency Operations Center.
So says the man whose agency had it built last fall using federal tax dollars.
"I personally did not see the need for that and I would have said I don't see the necessity for that," said Tom Pelham, who became the secretary of the Department of Community Affairs last year.
But the groundwork was laid for the brick and metal fence before Pelham came on the job.
It surrounds a complex in southeast Tallahassee that is the headquarters for disaster preparedness efforts before, during and after hurricanes, among other calamities. It's where governors give live TV briefings and experts track storms and recovery efforts.
The fence is supposed to make state officials and disaster workers safer, but unless an emergency has been declared, the 6-foot fence looks purely decorative and a guard shack sits empty. A grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security paid for it.
The fence was the idea of a statewide Domestic Security Oversight Council that included staff from former Gov. Jeb Bush's office. A background paper on the project cited the need to protect the center from the threat of terrorist attacks.
"The grant guidelines allow for protection of critical infrastructure, and we've done the best we can to protect the facility while we have senior leadership here," said Dave Halstead, chief of the Bureau of Preparedness & Response under emergency management chief Craig Fugate, who reports to Pelham.
Three years ago, the state hired Southland Contracting Inc. of Tallahassee. By the time Pelham arrived in early 2007, the state had applied for construction permits from the city and county.
Finished last fall, the project includes a guard shack and access gates and removable pillars that in times of emergency will be used to restrict the movement of cars in and out of the EOC.
Pelham mocked the fence as a source of protection and said it could easily be scaled by someone seeking to do harm.
"Anyone who wants to get over that barrier or drive through it could easily do so," Pelham said.
The guard shack will be staffed only in the event of a Level 1 emergency activation, when the governor and other state officials are likely to be in the EOC.
"I think we were being pro-active," Halstead said. "I'm sorry someone takes offense at what was done."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.