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November 26, 2012

"Hurricane Sandy Exposes Infrastructure Neglect"

Steven Malanga explains why we don't have enough "infrastructure". Can you guess?

This is precisely the kind of spending we neglect these days because its political payoff is rarely as attractive as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new municipal natatorium (that's a fancy name for an indoor swimming pool, I learned after reading the mayors' 2008 wish-list). The mayor's projects list was a reminder of how we have redefined and trivialized what infrastructure investment means, while shortchanging important spending. Consider what states have been doing with so-called 911-tax funds. Federal legislation gives states the right to levy a tax on cell phones so localities can upgrade their emergency response systems. Those systems are essential in a disaster, as first responders who descended on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where the communications system proved inadequate, can attest.

Wondering what states were doing with 911 money, Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate. In budget year 2009 alone, the FCC found that states had swiped $135 million of the money to close budget gaps, often moving the money directly into their general funds where they pay for things like employee benefits, Medicaid programs and education aid. New York State, one of the places hardest hit by Sandy, has been the biggest diverter of funds. In 20 years it has collected more than $700 million in cell phone surcharges and distributed less than one-sixth of that money for emergency system upgrades. Instead money has gone to state agencies, including the National Guard, which used some of it to pay for hotel rooms, dry cleaning and meals at Denny's, an audit found. Meanwhile, the state's 911 system is so imprecise that one emergency call from a cell phone received in Niagara County about a baby in distress was actually placed in North Carolina, according to the Buffalo News.

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