The Price of Panic

Did Boston’s bomb scare really cost a million bucks?

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Turner Broadcasting will pay the state of Massachusetts $2 million in compensation for a guerilla ad campaign that went terribly awry last week when devices meant to promote a show on the Cartoon Network were mistaken for the handiwork of terrorists. Boston’s mayor first estimated the cost to the city at more than half a million dollars; a few days later, the attorney general’s office said the prank took the entire state for $1 million. How do they come up with these figures?

It’s not exactly scientific. The attorney general calculated the number by asking for a cost estimate from each of the eight government entities that were affected by the hysteria. These included three cities—Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge—as well as the Boston’s public transportation system; the Massachusetts Port Authority, Highway Department, and State Police; and the U.S. Coast Guard. The responses included some neat, round numbers (like the $200,000 billed by the state police), as well as figures that were a bit more specific (like the $13,157 request from the highway department). Together, the expenditures totaled $578,766, but the attorney general’s agreement with Turner included another $421,234 in “additional restitution funds,” divided proportionally among the claimants. That conveniently put the total value of the prank at $1 million even. (Turner’s payment included another $1 million in “goodwill” money for the Department of Homeland Security.)

So, how did these local entities come up with their numbers? The city of Somerville determined its expenses by computing the number of extra security personnel and overtime hours required, among other things. The transportation system’s budget department tallied the cost of emergency bus lines, extra police staff, and lost revenue. The mayor’s office in Boston wouldn’t give any specifics, but a spokeswoman did say that the initial estimate of $500,000 was “a number they felt was reasonable” last Monday, though it later turned out to be inflated. (The city ended up with a $140,232 reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses.)

Recent terrorism scares elsewhere in the country have led to similar feats of accounting. A few months ago, a 16-year-old Wisconsin boy was ordered to pay $38,345 after sheriff’s deputies and sniffer dogs from three counties were called on to school grounds to investigate his hoax bomb threat. The restitution costs included compensation for “lost staff time” and $2,652 in thrown-out lunches.

A more daunting set of calculations was performed by New York City * Comptroller William Thompson in 2002, when his office estimated the cost of the Sept. 11 attacks at $95 billion dollars, taking account of jobs lost by the city, new jobs not created, cleanup and rebuilding costs, and decreased tax revenue.

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Explainer thanks Emily LaGrassa * in the attorney general’s office, Meaghan Silverberg in the Somerville mayor’s office, Richard Walsh at Massport, and various spokespeople for Mayor Menino of Boston.

*Correction, Feb. 12, 2007: The original version of this article referred to William Thompson as the New York state comptroller. He was (and remains) the New York city comptroller. (Click here to return to the corrected sentence.) Also, the original version misspelled the last name of Emily LaGrassa as LaGratta.