When President Trump unveiled his fiscal year 2018 Budget Blueprint this spring, the emergency management community shuddered.
The administration has proposed $667 million in cuts to state and local grant funding for FEMA efforts, including the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. It also calls for a 25 percent non-federal cost match for FEMA grant awards that currently require no cost match.
The cuts would have a profound negative impact on states’ abilities to prevent and respond to disasters, according to leading professionals from across the emergency management community. Already-thin staffs would have to be pared back even further. Preparedness would take a back seat to more immediate needs, leaving communities vulnerable.
On the upside, this draft budget is only an opening salvo. Members of Congress will no doubt have their own ideas for how to best fund the nation’s emergency response and national security infrastructures, and many will be leery of stripping down programs that directly aid their communities. Nonetheless, emergency management leaders from around the nation are sounding an early alarm that these cuts, if enacted, could have a potentially crippling effect.
As director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps is flummoxed by the prospect of paying for these potential cuts.
“As a profession, we in emergency management never see things that we can stop doing. We just get more creative in how we use our limited funds,” he said. “We will probably have to work with our state and local authorities to see how we can offset some of those losses, but here in Oregon we are facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit, so coming up with additional funds to offset federal losses is going to be problematic.”
The hurt would come across the board.
Take the Homeland Security Grant Program, a $3.8 million item in Oregon last year that helps to pay for equipment and training. The president wants a 25 percent cut and a new 25 percent match. “That money goes quite a long way for us,” Phelps said. “We have a geographically diverse state where communication can be an issue, and a lot of this money goes to fund more robust communications infrastructure. We all know that being able to talk during a disaster is key.”
The state also could take a hit to its $5.2 million Emergency Management Performance Grant funding, money that goes to support local and tribal emergency managers’ salary and benefits. “We would be talking about pretty significant staff cuts. Just in my office that would be a reduction of six or seven full-time employees. For the local and tribal partners it would be 25 percent of their workforce that ends up not being funded.”
Especially hurtful would be cuts to the state’s share of the national $100 million Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant pool of funding. “Mitigation is not sexy,” he said. “There are no flashing lights, it doesn’t make the 11 o’clock news, but that’s where emergency managers earn their paychecks: by effectively mitigating hazards.”
The mitigation grants help localities keep their hazard mitigation plans current. Without a current plan, a municipality cannot tap additional hazard mitigation funding, so the loss of pre-disaster grant monies could potentially have a ripple effect. “Then we start to see a cycle of escalating costs,” Phelps said.
While mitigation may not be glamorous, it is effective. Phelps recalls catastrophic flooding events in 1996 and 2006, which led to significant mitigation investments. That planning money paid off in 2015 when historic heavy rains caused almost no negative effect. “With the amount of rain they got they should have been underwater, but they saw no impact at all, and that was directly due to that mitigation work that was done.”
At the California Office of Emergency Services, Director Mark Ghilarducci says the Trump proposals would deal a crippling blow to security. “If it were to be implemented the way it is outlined, it would have draconian and dramatic effects,” he said. “The White House wants to cut state and local grants that are the foundation of national security. These cuts would literally cripple these activities.”
He finds the new “match” requirement especially irksome. It isn’t that states do not want to help shoulder the load: It’s that they already are. “They talk about a match,” he said. “When you look at the work state and local governments are doing, we are already committing a tremendous amount of resources. That position resonates with all the state homeland security directors.”
The Homeland Security Grant Program supplied California with $60 million last year in support of counterterrorism training. The proposed reductions “would decimate those programs and would make us more vulnerable to a terrorist attack,” Ghilarducci said. “Where does homegrown extremism take place? At the local level. So if we want to see more Orlando shooters and San Bernadino shooters, then sure, let’s cut what we are doing at the local level.”
Last year the state drew $27.8 million in Emergency Management Performance Grants, money that supports headcount that is desperately needed at a time when most of the 58 counties are under federal disaster declarations after six years of drought. “There’s a lot going on around here. Which part do you you want me to not deal with? Should I cut off my right arm, or my left?” he said.
Like many in the emergency management community, Ghilarducci is especially baffled by calls to pare back the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant program. He points to well established data showing that for every dollar invested in mitigation, communities save $7 in response.
“Isn’t it intuitive that if you go out and build resiliency and harden your community to lessen the impact of a disaster, then overall when a disaster hits, the impact will be much less?” he said.
It isn’t just the money that worries him, it’s the potential impact on national security, an integral element in any disaster response consideration. “This is not just about natural disasters. It’s homeland security, it’s hardening critical infrastructure,” he said. “Imagine a catastrophic disaster in Los Angeles. The state would be hurt, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach would be hurt, and the damage from that would have a ripple effect across the country and across the world.”
Edging north toward the Arctic Circle, the proposed cuts are having an equally chilling effect. Alaska’s budget has been pummeled by low oil prices, and the emergency community there already has been digging deep to meet its obligations during tough financial times.
“We as state government need to look at where we can reduce our costs. We look at it all the time. How can we do better business? How can we bring down the cost of responding to disasters?” said Mike O’Hare, Alaska’s director of the division of homeland security and emergency management. Deep cuts on the federal side now will only make a bad situation worse.
The mitigation money in particular would be difficult to replace. “People will come up with money when it’s for people running into harm’s way to save lives, and they don’t see mitigation that way,” he said. “In tight fiscal times it’s tough to invest in proactive stuff. It’s a hard sell.”
Cuts to the Homeland Security Grant Program would likely leave some communities out in the cold when it comes to critical equipment including search-and-rescue gear and communications upgrades.
In Alaska, communities write individual applications for this money, and a peer-review committee doles out the funds. If the budget stands as presented, “the process stays the same but not every application will get funded,” O’Hare said. “We might have to piece together funding over a number of years, or there just may not be enough money for some things. We may have to execute on just the top two or three applications and let the others go.”
On the other hand, maybe it won’t be anywhere near that bad. Nothing is set in stone yet, and O’Hare has seen federal emergency money on the block before. Typically, nothing ever comes of these threats. “All these proposals happen every budget cycle, and in our experience there has been flat funding with no increases,” he said.
It’s a point well worth considering, as the emergency management community attempts to align its resources. The president’s budget brief is just an opening gambit. Congress ultimately has the power of the purse. That said: What is the political prognosis? Will these reductions ever see the light of day?
It’s worth noting that the budget brief drew a less-than-enthusiastic reception from congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle upon its initial release.
“Inexplicably, the president’s budget slashes proven FEMA antiterrorism grant programs and leaves high-risk surface transportation infrastructure vulnerable by imposing cuts to TSA [Transportation Safety Administration] and law enforcement support programs,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D.-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “The president needs to go back to the drawing board before submitting his final budget request and return to Congress with a plan that is realistic, actually keeps us safe and doesn’t decimate the government,” Thompson added.
The ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee’s emergency preparedness, response and communications subcommittee, Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D.-N.J., derided the proposal.
“President Trump’s ill-conceived proposal to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA state and local grant funding is further proof that the president has no idea of what it takes to protect this nation,” he said “These grants have been crucial to developing effective emergency preparedness and response plans for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Cutting them to this extent will undo the progress we’ve made and leave our infrastructure, and our communities, vulnerable.”
Republicans for their part showed little eagerness to defend the budget.
The proposals are “just the beginning of the negotiation process with Congress,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R.-Texas. Likewise, Rep. Dan Donovan, R.-N.Y., chairman of the emergency preparedness subcommittee, called the budget blueprint “step one in the negotiating process.”
In light of this lukewarm reception, even by the president’s own party, “we shouldn’t panic,” said Wendy Smith-Reeve, director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. Rather, emergency management professionals should be speaking up to try to influence the political deliberations, a view shared by other state-level leaders.
“It’s incumbent upon the emergency management community do a better job of articulating where we were 10 years ago, where these grant dollars have gotten us, and where we are going to be in 10 years if we have this money available to help protect against these threats and hazards,” Oregon’s Phelps said. “We do a good job of that at the local and the state level, but it is a little more difficult to do that at the national level.”
He encourages emergency management professionals to engage directly with key lawmakers as the budget process unfolds. “Every conversation we can have hopefully helps to build that case a little bit,” he said.
Others are laying the groundwork for Plan B, considering what steps they might take if these or similar cuts do come to pass.
“Here in Alaska the private sector knows how to get things here quickly. They are experts in logistics, which is a skill we need in emergency management,” O’Hare said. “It doesn’t cost much to get those folks to the table to explore how we can work together. It’s mostly just a matter of time and some coffee.”
Time and coffee alone won’t likely be enough to close the gap, if actual funding levels end up looking anything like the initial draft issued this spring.
But some doubt it will come to that. Ghilarducci, for instance, declared the budget “dead on arrival” and predicted a major congressional overhaul. Still, the mere threat of such sweeping cuts should put the emergency management community on notice that nothing is guaranteed under this new administration.