Ridge Calls on Congress to Change Formula for First Responder Funds

NACo looks for input from counties about how to create an equitable system that reflects vulnerabilities

by / May 22, 2003
In testimony before several congressional committees, Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the department is considering a new formula for allocating funds to emergency first responders for counter terrorism and other disaster preparedness.

Office of Domestic Preparedness Formula
Currently, the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) formula for distributing state and local Homeland Security Grants is based primarily on population, with every state guaranteed a minimum percent of the overall grant - currently 0.05 percent. Ridge stressed "at the end of the day ... we shouldn't distribute a security dollar unless it is consistent with ... an overarching plan brought into us by the states to ensure coordination at the local level."

He has called on lawmakers to convey the message that states must craft a strategy to coordinate with their local communities before receiving federal funds. Critics of this distribution formula contend that less vulnerable areas receive more funding per person than other high-density jurisdictions with more critical infrastructure and security needs. For instance, in distributing the $566 million provided under the State Homeland Security Grant Program for FY03, California received $1.33 per person and New York received $1.39 per person, while Wyoming received $9.78 per person and North Dakota received $7.76 per person.

Many in Congress have begun to question the current distribution formula and, at a recent Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing, they began to address this issue. "Our current formula fails to recognize that linear population increases do not equate into linear threat increases," Ridge said of the grant-distribution process. As a result, the department is considering how to weigh those factors as well as a region's degree of vulnerability. Although neither Congress nor the department have yet to submit a detailed legislative draft of their proposal, Ridge indicated that any new formula would take into account factors such as population density, critical infrastructure, national icons, terrorism intelligence and vulnerability.

Regional strategies for homeland security
NACo has recommended that any changes to the grant program support continued funding to both large and rural communities and that funding to local governments be predicated upon comprehensive planning and distributed to local governments and regional jurisdictions (multiple cities, towns, and counties in a situated geographic area). Many counties have favored a regional approach in securing their communities from a potential terrorist threat. In fact, given the limited federal dollars available for homeland security, many counties such as Hennepin, Minn., Johnson County, Kan. and Erie County, N.Y. have begun to share resources with their neighboring communities.
A regional approach to preparedness, prevention and response will best allow the resources of multiple jurisdictions to be quickly employed in the event of a terrorist incident, according to Hennepin County (Minn.) Commissioner Randy Johnson, member of NACo's Homeland Security Task Force. The diverse makeup of participating levels of state and local governments allows for special expertise to be quickly identified and deployed, he explained.

Meanwhile, for smaller counties and denser areas of the nation - many of which have critical infrastructures in their communities such as nuclear reactors and dams - the benefits of regional collaboration will add to their capacity to respond to all hazards, not just terrorism, said Michael Selves, emergency manager, Johnson County, Kan., also a member of NACo's Homeland Security Task Force.

High threat areas
Ridge also began to address the challenges of "high threat urban areas" and their need for additional resources. This topic has become an issue of frequent debate and will have an overall effect on how funds are dispersed to state and local governments ? especially counties. The department recently provided $100 million directly to several cities and only awarded the counties of the consolidated county/city of New York and the National Capital Region as part of their "Urban Area Security Initiative" grant program. In awarding grants directly to cities, NACo has argued that the department failed to recognize the ongoing collaboration between counties and cities in preparing, preventing and responding to a disaster.

Recently, the department announced it will again accept applications for an additional $700 million for the Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program. NACo encourages all counties with large metropolitan cities within their boundaries to apply directly to DHS for funding.

Streamlining applications for First Responder grants
Various grant programs dealing with homeland security were absorbed by the new department and many require a lot of the same information on their grant application forms. This issue has become a major concern to many counties and other local government officials across the nation. Citing these complaints by state, local and other first responder organizations, the Senate has urged DHS to streamline the various grant applications for state and local governments, and consolidate some of the existing plans that various federal agencies require from state and local government prior to receiving any funding for homeland security.

Ridge has said, "the department is working to eliminate duplicative requests for security plans," but stressed " the government needs those strategies to hold states and localities accountable for how they spend federal money." Ridge has also announced that the department is trying to make progress in building an Internet portal for grant applications and that he supports moving the Office of Domestic Preparedness into the department's State and Local Coordination Office.

NACo has encouraged DHS and Congress to distribute an equitable share of funding to both small and large local governments for their homeland security activities. "Counties across the nation have spent a great deal of funding to support ongoing counter terrorism activities in their community, and Congress must provide additional resources to support all local governments, not just large metropolitan areas " said Larry Naake, NACo executive director.

By Dalen A. Harris associate legislative director, NACo
From NACo, County News Headlines