The High Cost of Homeland Defense

Thanks to generous taxpayers like you, Miami's top Coast Guard officer has a very swanky address

As America is learning, the war on terror is a costly undertaking. In his address to the nation in early September, President George W. Bush spelled out some of those costs: $87 billion, on top of the roughly $63 billion already requested, for the war and reconstruction in Iraq. This year alone another $28 billion will be spent by the recently created Department of Homeland Security to thwart terrorism at home. "This will take time and require sacrifice," our president sermonized. "Yet we will do whatever is necessary, we will spend whatever is necessary to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror."

To put a local face on that declaration of patriotic sacrifice and the spare-no-expense crusade against terrorists, look no further than Miami's own Rear Admiral Harvey Johnson of the U.S. Coast Guard. Johnson, who is 50 years old, is the Department of Homeland Security's top man in Miami. He arrived here in June carrying two impressive titles: Director of Homeland Security Task Force Southeast and Commander of the Coast Guard's District Seven, which is headquartered in Miami but stretches from South Carolina to the Caribbean rim of South America. With its historically porous borders and proximity to so many Third World transit points, our region is surely one of America's frontlines in its escalating war on terrorism.

The job is a plum posting for a rising star. Before his transfer to Miami, Johnson won praise for overseeing the Coast Guard's transition from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security. He served as executive assistant to Coast Guard Comdt. Thomas Collins and shouldered heavy responsibility as director of operations policy. Johnson is a decorated graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, and MIT's Sloan School of Management. Floridians should sigh in relief upon learning that a man of his influence and experience is here to protect our shores -- cost be damned -- from drug smugglers, illegal arms shipments, flotillas of Haitian refugees, and other unwanted visitors (don't forget that the 9/11 hijackers found it easy to operate in South Florida) slipping off boats under cover of darkness to plot their murderous attacks from within our own borders.

Rear Admiral Harvey Johnson calls this Cocopium manse home sweet home
Bill Cooke
Rear Admiral Harvey Johnson calls this Cocopium manse home sweet home

But protecting America is a demanding proposition. So demanding that upon considering the formidable tasks that awaited him in Miami, Johnson thumbed his nose at the District Seven commander's long-standing official residence -- the so-called "flag quarters" -- within the Coast Guard's Richmond Heights housing complex near Metrozoo in South Miami-Dade. It was too old, too outmoded, and too far from civilized Miami. To unwind each day and to assure victory in the war on terror, the commander would need something a little larger. And more modern. And with a pool. And for his wife, he'd like something not too far from fashionable shopping districts. And if possible he'd like neighbors a bit more socially connected than your average enlisted man.

The housing search produced an obvious choice: the posh waterfront Coral Gables enclave of Cocoplum. Johnson and his wife Janet, taking to heart our commander-in-chief's freewheeling approach to military spending, now reside in a 6200-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath home that costs taxpayers $111,600 per year in lease payments. Utilities, maintenance, and other upkeep (such as the cleaning service for the back yard swimming pool) are extra.

Extravagance like that may come as a surprise to anyone worried about massive federal deficits and reports of bare-bones funding for port security, interdiction, and other antiterrorism efforts -- but don't tell the Coast Guard. While Johnson declined to be interviewed about his palatial abode, his Miami support staff insists the new flag quarters are a wise use of funds. "The events of 9/11 and the transition into the Department of Homeland Security have greatly increased the visibility of the Coast Guard," explains Capt. Richard Murphy, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's civil engineering unit in Miami. He argues that "senior executives" like Johnson need a large and luxurious residence, "given the order of magnitude of the job and the fact that he must represent the interests of the United States." Murphy acknowledges that the Richmond Heights commander's residence (now standing empty) was set up for such entertaining, and indeed Johnson's predecessors -- including recently departed Rear Admiral Jay Carmichael -- often played host. The Richmond Heights home, while more modest, also had adjacent guest quarters for visiting officials, something the Cocoplum home does not. But other factors, such as proximity to Miami International Airport and to District Seven headquarters in downtown Miami, also were weighed.

Typically military personnel who choose to live off-base are allowed to purchase or lease a home on their own. They are reimbursed according to a Department of Defense formula that factors in local housing costs and the individual's rank. As a rear admiral with dependents, Johnson's monthly allowance for a home in Miami is $2667, perhaps enough for the common Coastie but hardly adequate for a commander with his eye on a home with a market value approaching two million dollars.

Johnson's challenge is not unique. Coast Guard officers in Miami frequently complain their housing allowance is inadequate. If the argument is deemed valid, the individual can forgo the allowance and live in a private home leased directly by the Coast Guard. There are about 30 such cases in South Florida. But the program is designed for low-ranking servicemen with large families, remote work locations, and other such special needs. As a senior officer with one of the highest allowances, Johnson does not qualify, according to Capt. Mike Lapinski, head of Integrated Support Command, an office that oversees the Coast Guard's housing services in South Florida.

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