Public Safety & Homeland Security

Why Is Washington Decimating State and Local Homeland Security Programs? (Opinion)

In its desire to cut spending, Congress took a hammer to state and local homeland security programs in fiscal year 2011.

by Joshua D. Filler / June 20, 2011
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On Monday, June 20, most of the nation’s state and local homeland security community will meet in San Francisco at the National Urban Areas Security Initiative Homeland Security Conference. On the top of everyone’s mind will be the future of federal homeland security grant programs as Congress and the White House continue to look to cut these grants as a way to trim the federal deficit. 

It’s no secret the U.S. government is in real fiscal trouble. Annual deficits exceed a trillion dollars compounded by a $14 trillion national debt. However, in its desire to cut spending, Congress took a hammer to state and local homeland security programs in fiscal year 2011 funding them at $1.9 billion, a 28 percent overall cut with some programs seeing cuts as deep as 34 percent and 47 percent. This compared to the 2 percent reduction the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received and the $11.6 billion appropriated to support the Afghan Security Forces. 

As bad as 2011 was, fiscal 2012 essentially serves as the beginning of the end for federal support to states and localities for homeland security with a $1.2 billion cut as passed in the House of Representatives. This leaves just $708 million for all programs including those for major urban areas, mass transit, ports and states. As in 2011, such cuts are wildly disproportionate compared to other cuts in the budget and will have significant negative impacts on this nation’s ability to prevent and respond to terrorist incidents and other catastrophes.

Whether it was New York’s responders arriving on scene in Times Square to render safe Faisal Shahzad’s improvised explosive device in 2010, or intelligence officers spotting suspicious items in a southern California apartment in 2005 leading to the break-up of a terrorist cell formed in California’s prisons, or search and rescue teams saving families in tornado ravaged Joplin, Mo., in 2011; state and local homeland security grants funded the plans, equipment and training that supported these efforts and much, much more.

With these grants, the federal government is building a valuable resource that directly supports core federal missions: counterterrorism and catastrophic incident response without having to build it organically inside the federal government, which would be far more expensive and much less useful. Instead of trying to understand what will be lost from these cuts, Washington is simply hacking away trying to “save money” even as it destroys the very equity in homeland security capability it has spent billions of dollars to build over the last nine years. While states and localities spend hundreds of billions of dollars on public health and safety each year, intelligence fusion centers, full-scale exercises, counterterrorism training and high-end response equipment are beyond their fiscal reach as they lay off cops, firefighters and reduce other basic services.

The grants are not pork. As a condition of receiving funds, every state, urban area, transit agency and maritime port must have a homeland security plan with goals, objectives and implementation steps and that plan must be approved and on file with the DHS. Each grant applicant must also provide elaborate annual funding justifications to the DHS explaining how projects link to their plan and what the projects will accomplish by reducing risk through enhanced capabilities.

A pernicious excuse for cutting these grants is that states and localities have not spent the money already given to them. With each grant award, recipients have three years to spend the money. However, they must formally obligate the funding based upon their plans much sooner, which means they must attach the funds to projects through contracts and other obligating mechanisms. Funds are only dispersed to the states and localities from the Treasury once they spend their own funds and then they are reimbursed. Given these federal rules it should be no surprise that one year’s funding cycle is still in the Treasury years after it was awarded.

The reason there is a three-year period of performance is that developing complex plans, conducting multi-jurisdictional assessments and delivering training and intricate equipment takes time. Oddly, Congress seems to want states and localities to spend their grant money recklessly by paying for equipment and services not yet delivered in order to show the money is “spent.”  Should big cities pay billions for communications equipment not yet fully delivered, tested and installed? The homeland security grant funds are fully accounted for and constantly scrutinized by auditors from multiple agencies. Moreover, when funds are delayed it is often the result of federal policies, such as environmental regulations.

Today America is better prepared and more secure than it was on 9/11 due to the enhanced capabilities the federal government has helped fund at the state and local level. Building these capabilities takes time and sustaining them with consistent federal support is crucial as people retire and equipment fades. Congress and the Obama Administration should not rush to cut off these funds in the false hope of saving money in the short run. Whether our nation’s public safety personnel will be able to prevent or respond to a terrorist incident or other disaster in the future will very much depend on decisions made now. In the event they cannot, rest assured, Congress and the White House will scurry to spend billions of dollars to restore the very capabilities they let wither in the first place.

Joshua D. Filler is the former director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Before that he served in the cabinet of the mayor of New York City, including on Sept. 11, 2001.