How Stimulus Money Will Benefit Public Safety

Federal grants will benefit public safety but come with limits in some cases.

by / June 21, 2009

A replacement for the 50-year-old main fire station building in Janesville, Wis., has been on the city's capital improvement project list since 2002, but the city hasn't been able to fund construction.

That may change with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which contains $210 million in grants for fire station construction (with no single grant to exceed $15 million).

"Our building is near the end of its life," said Larry J. Grorud, Janesville's fire chief and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). "It still has the original heating system. The city has grown, but the building has not. So we plan to apply for that funding. The stimulus could be very helpful to us."

Across the country, police, fire and port security officials were pleasantly surprised by the scope of funding ARRA allocated for public safety. The lion's share will flow through the U.S. Department of Justice's Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) - $2.25 billion - and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program - $1 billion - but hundreds of millions also will be funneled through U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies that assist port, public transportation, railroad security and firefighting organizations. Funding for emergency operations centers was struck from the bill before passage.

Now regional agency officials are working to understand how the funding will be disbursed and what to emphasize in competitive grant applications. Many are turning to state and national organizations, like the IAFC for information on funding breakdowns and grant deadlines. The fact that the money will be channeled through existing programs, like JAG, should expedite the process because recipients are familiar with those programs' guidelines.

David Steingraber, executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, said his agency is receiving guidance from two sources: the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the office of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. "We are getting a clear message from both that they expect us to use this funding for job creation or retention," said Steingraber, whose office oversees policy development and grant administration in criminal justice, juvenile justice and homeland security grant programs.

Departments can create new positions or retain at-risk positions, said Steingraber, who is also president of the National Criminal Justice Association, or they can spend the funding on technology and infrastructure in ways that create jobs.

The level of urgency concerning funding for positions and infrastructure varies by community. Where state funding is driven mainly by income and sales tax, public safety agencies are already experiencing shortfalls and layoffs. Local agencies funded primarily through property taxes may not have seen cuts yet. But Steingraber said most municipal agencies are facing budget constraints. "We have seen agencies hold off on discretionary spending on capital improvements and on information technology infrastructure," he said.

The JAG money will be allocated using formulas involving population and violent- crime statistics. Basically 40 percent of the money that goes to each state is awarded directly to city and county entities, as long as that formula allocates a jurisdiction at least $10,000. For areas too small to qualify for that amount, the money goes back to the state to distribute in subgrants to those communities.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance Web site has more information about JAG grants, including a breakdown of available funding by region.

State and local agencies are busy prioritizing projects for competitive grant proposals. Maine, for example, will likely propose spending on IT projects to link courts, prisons, prosecutors and police agencies' databases, according to Department of Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan in a Portland

Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram article in March.

For police departments in areas hit hard by the recession, COPS grants are extremely important, said Margaret Stark, a public safety grant consultant for Xenonics Holdings, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based digital surveillance systems maker. "Every day I talk to people in departments that are laying off officers. Flint, Mich., had to lay off 40 officers," she said. "So the stimulus funding will allow those departments to rehire officers and avoid further layoffs. Despite the overall increase in funding," she added, "the process isn't going to be any less competitive, so it's still important that agencies get good at writing grants or seek outside help.


Other Grant Opportunities

Besides the huge JAG and COPS funding programs, public safety agencies can look elsewhere for grant funding:

o Approximately $9 billion of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is designated for state governors to fund public safety, education and other government services.
o States and municipalities will compete for the $150 million in railroad and public- transportation security grants. Also eligible are railroad carriers, Amtrak and companies that ship security-sensitive materials by rail.
o ARRA provides $125 million specifically targeting law enforcement and drug prevention and treatment in rural areas. "They have been largely left out of homeland security funding that has gone to protect critical infrastructure in urban areas," said Stark. "This will be a tremendous benefit to them."
o The act makes $40 million available for assistance to curb gun and drug trafficking along the Southwest border.
o The $150 million in ARRA for port security grants makes available about 37 percent more money than the approximately $400 million awarded for fiscal 2009 by the DHS.

Ports will likely apply for grants to fund security cameras, lighting and other protective equipment and infrastructure, as well as interoperable communications devices, interagency coordination and implementation expenses associated with the new Transportation Worker Identification Credential, such as installing biometric card readers.

With the final DHS grant guidelines expected in June, administration officials clearly want port officials to think creatively about construction projects that will create jobs and improve security systems, said Aaron Ellis, communications director of the American Association of Port Authorities. "For instance, they may have purchased boats for security purposes but have trouble using them because they need to do dock repairs," he said. "Traditionally they couldn't use port security grants for those purposes, but now they may be able to."

The ARRA funding also waives the 25 percent matching fund requirement of the traditional port security grant program. The 25 percent match is difficult for ports to come up with in the current economic environment for several reasons, Ellis said. "Some have faced cargo volume declines and tenants leaving. Plus, they have to borrow to do projects. Credit markets have tightened and bond ratings have dropped. Funds are either very expensive or not available at all."

Some ports have applied for grants and haven't received the funds yet. They may be able to apply for a waiver so they could scale back a $1 million project to $750,000 and get all the funding from the federal government without providing the 25 percent match. Another possibility is that they could withdraw their application from the last round and reapply.


Short-Term vs. Long-Term Planning

As pleased as they are about federal aid, some local agencies are concerned about using stimulus money to create jobs they'll have trouble funding in the long term. For instance, the COPS grants come with strings attached. They pay the salary and benefits of an entry-level officer for three years, but the local department must commit to paying for at least the fourth year.

Even facing that uncertainty, Steingraber tries to keep in mind that the grants will generate breadwinning jobs for three years. "We

don't have a crystal ball to know what the economy is going to be doing in three years. We're all hoping the economy has improved and departments will have the funding to retain those employees."

The same conundrum applies to grants to hire new firefighters. ARRA waives the local match required by the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant program for new grantees. Yet the local fire department must commit to keeping the SAFER firefighter for five years, and there's a $111,000 cap on the total federal share of salaries and benefits associated with each firefighter.

Chief Grorud noted that in Janesville, the full-burden cost of a new firefighter is $67,000 per year. "By the end of the second year, we would have to have some funding available," he said. "If you let that firefighter go, you have to pay the money back. So if I had a crystal ball and could ensure the local economy and tax base would improve, I would feel comfortable going ahead and doing it. But you have to have those resources."

David Raths contributing writer