When local towns need the right kind of truck to drive through storms and flooding, there’s one source for many: the U.S. military.
A program offering military surplus items at no cost to local law enforcement departments and agencies has been criticized nationally for lack of oversight after large amounts of equipment ended up in small towns. But in South Jersey, the most common acquisition by far was trucks — utility trucks, cargo trucks and dump trucks.
Frank Donato, Ocean City’s emergency management coordinator, said his town has about a dozen pieces of military equipment. Two trucks have been custom-fitted with plows to supplement the city’s decimated truck fleet, which was battered by Hurricane Sandy.
Ocean City wanted the trucks because their ground clearance is so great — 3 to 4 feet in most places — that the military trucks could have driven safely around most of the island during the height of Sandy. The depth of the storm water during Sandy was too much for the city’s own equipment and prevented rescues after a certain point.
Most of the 33 trucks acquired by Cape May County departments were acquired for similar reasons. Atlantic City has also acquired some 5-ton trucks in the past, though no agency in Atlantic County (nor Cumberland County) is listed in the Defense Logistics Agency’s listings for acquisitions in 2012-13.
In addition to their usefulness, those military surplus acquisitions are some of the best deals that local towns can find.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO, facilitates the transfer of surplus military equipment to local agencies across the country. The equipment is acquired by the agencies at no cost, as long as the agencies are able to pick it up themselves.
According to the DOD’s Defense Logistics Agency, which coordinates the program for the military, $4.3 billion worth of military property has been transferred since its inception in the 1990s, including $449 million of property in 2013.
South Jersey agencies acquired a number of pieces of equipment in 2012 and 2013, according to data The Press of Atlantic City requested from the Defense Logistics Agency for all of New Jersey.
Nontactical equipment — trailers, tractors, tools — is listed by department, but of 495 individual pieces of equipment dispersed in 2012-13, the only items listed for South Jersey are two light fixtures and a loader acquired by Wildwood police and a light fixture acquired by the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. This is in comparison, as it happens, to dozens of items acquired by northern Ocean County departments.
Tactical equipment — weapons and assorted accessories, combat equipment, and trucks and vehicles — are listed only by county, so the identity of the agencies receiving such equipment is not made available through the DOD. Numerous items were acquired by agencies in Cape May and Ocean counties, including six .45 automatic pistols, sights, ballistic goggles, and small arms ammunition.
There has been criticism of the program, however.
An Associated Press investigation in November found that the program, originally aimed at helping local law enforcement fight terrorism and drug trafficking, distributed a disproportionate share to police departments and sheriff’s offices in rural areas with few officers and little crime. The equipment is often operated with scant oversight, and in many cases the surplus military materiel just sits in storage, the investigation found.
DOD documents and interviews revealed that staffing shortages and budget constraints made it difficult for federal and state program officials to keep track of all of the property and preventing police forces from obtaining excessive amounts of used military equipment and property.
Tiny Morven, Ga., for example, acquired a $200,000 decontamination machine and a shipment of bayonets which never made it out of storage.
But South Jersey departments say that the equipment they’ve acquired has gone to good use. In Middle Township, Police Capt. John Edwards said that the department’s participation in the LESO program has brought in nearly $700,000 worth of equipment.
“It’s almost like eBay, shopping on the Internet,” Edwards said. “If we need high-wheeled vehicles, or five-ton trucks, (Officer Steve Novsak) goes on and finds a truck. We’ve had to travel to Ohio or Maryland usually to pick them up.”
The list prices on the vehicles are in the $68,000 range, he said. The township has also in the past acquired three diesel generator trailers and five Humvees, he added.
Most important, Edwards said, “For Middle Township, there’s no cost to taxpayers, and we get a new asset. It’s win-win.”
Kevin Lyons, the legal protection administrator for the state Policeman’s Benevolent Association, said that most acquisitions by his department, Long Beach Township, were also large trucks to help during storms and floods.
Lyons spoke for PBA president Anthony Wieners in saying that “Essentially, any resource brought to towns that saves taxpayers money, we’re certainly in favor of. Anything for public safety.”
Or, as Lyons put it himself, departments are “pretty resourceful. We’ll take anything if it’s under the tree.”
Staff writer Cindy Nevitt and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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