As a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the California state legislature created a special license plate that would not only commemorate the lives lost, but also fund scholarships for the victim's families and train response personnel for terrorist threats. But as almost 11 years has passed, more than half of the funds raised have been spent elsewhere.
The original bill required 15 percent of the funds to go toward scholarships for victim's spouses and children from California, while 85 percent went to train law enforcement, fire departments, and health agencies "exclusively for purposes directly related to fighting terrorism." Of the more than 2,800 killed on Sept 11, 47 were from California.
But with the state struggling with gaping deficits, the funds have been spent on industrial hygienists, poultry monitoring, and administrative costs for the California Emergency Management Agency, amid other things.
"I'm sorry that as we retreat in time from 9/11, we seem to be retreating in our resolve never to forget," said Alice Hoagland, the mother of Mark Bingham who was killed on United Airlines Flight 93 while trying to take control of the plane from hijackers.
The state treasurer's office closed the scholarship fund in 2005 with only $80,000 set aside for scholarships, but the Department of Motor Vehicles still advertised for the program up until last week. While 40 percent of the funds have gone to train law enforcement and emergency personnel in anti-terrorism measures, the rest have plugged holes in California's budget deficit.
Hoagland's sister, Candyce Hoglan, who bought a plate to commemorate her nephew, was troubled by the use of funds. "I can't believe that they would do that," she said. "We're paying extra for the plate; we're making a point, and it means a lot to us."
Each plate costs $50 and must be maintained with an annual fee. The fund brings in $1.5 million a year, collecting a total of $15 million dollars since its creation.
Under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gov. Jerry Brown, $3 million of the funds went to offset budget deficits, with no intention of being replaced.
"We're trying to simultaneously balance the budget and fund important programs," said Brown's spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford. "If there was an indication that borrowing this money was going to negatively impact this program, we wouldn't borrow the money."
The Legislature also sent $3.7 million to the California Department of Food and Agriculture to establish an online food monitoring database and implement a variety of worker safety programs.
The rest of the money went to the California Emergency Management Agency, which used some of the funds for anti-terrorist efforts. While they used nearly $1 million in memorial license plate money for general operations and administrative costs, another $1 million went directly to state fusion centers, which work with the federal government to aggregate terrorist threat information.
Herb Wesson, author of the bill, said he was saddened to hear how the money had been spent.
"I understand the financial climate they find themselves in, but they are not following the spirit and intent of the legislation," said Wesson, now president of the Los Angeles City Council. "The lion's share of the money was supposed to be given to local law enforcement so that they could beef up their anti-terrorism operations."
Angela Pecorelli, whose brother Thomas Pecorelli died aboard American Flight 11 as he was returning home to California, thought the use of funds unfortunate: "Now the money is being used for political and whatever reasons, it's very sad," she said. "It's like a slap in the face."
But she also started her own scholarship fund to commemorate her brother in 2002. Thomas was a cameraman for Fox Network, so the fund helps students at Newburyport High School in Massachusetts attend college to study audio or visual communications. So far 17 students have won awards and 13 students have received scholarships.
Even as time passes, Pecorelli said his memory lives on.
"He's not forgotten at all," Pecorelli said. "Tommy has touched people in life and in death, and he is loved just as much now as he was when he was alive."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.