Balancing Act

State and local governments agree the Department of Homeland Security's disbursement of homeland funds was inadequate, but they disagree on a solution.

by / February 4, 2004
With 2003 in the rearview mirror and homeland security funds finally in first responders' hands -- at least in many jurisdictions -- state and local governments hope the grant process will be revised to better meet the nation's security needs.

Reviewing how well the homeland security funding process worked for fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003 begins with a couple of simple queries of government officials and watchdogs: Did the money get to localities most in need? Is it used most effectively, such as for radio equipment to improve interoperability?

The prevalent answer is no.

That it took too long for the federal government to get funds into state coffers was one of the first and sharpest complaints, and that was just the beginning. Problems didn't dissipate when states finally got the money. Local municipalities complained states either held onto the money too long, or didn't seek input on how to disburse it. Local governments want more say in how to spend it. Some jurisdictions complained states kept the money to cover deficits. In other cases, local police and fire chiefs reportedly made "gentlemen's agreements" about how to spend the money, disregarding the region's best interests.

"If changes aren't made, we'll see the same things in 2004 as we saw in 2003/2002," said Tracey Perkosky, client services director for eCivis, the company that created Grants Locator, a tool that gives state and local governments information on potential funding sources to apply for grants. "Then we'll be two years behind the curve instead of one year behind the curve."

Common Sense Methodology
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not only taking heat from some states for the delay in getting money to states, but also for the methodology used to award it. Money was distributed to states based primarily on population. Threats, vulnerability and risk assessments were not factors, as most agree they should have been.

States that are considered high profile, like New York and California, gripe that keeping their territories safe costs far more than their reimbursement from the DHS -- they've shelled out millions of dollars in overtime to law enforcement for added critical infrastructure protection and extra airport security during heightened alerts.

States like Wyoming, which have a lower risk of terrorist attacks, have received more funds than their perceived threat level suggests they need.

For fiscal 2003, New York received $320.6 million and Wyoming got $17.7 million, which calculates to $16.98 per capita for New York and $35.80 per capita for Wyoming. The funding formula guarantees each state at least 0.75 percent of funds available, and the remaining 60 percent is based on population.

"These big places that need the money aren't getting it," Perkosky said. "In the meantime, you have these tiny rural communities in the middle of nowhere getting equipment and training."

The DHS would do well to adopt a common sense methodology that protects individual targets rather than sprinkling dollars on everyone, said Harley Rinerson, Colorado's chief information security officer.

"You can take a lot of money and throw it across the board at a lot of different areas and get nothing," Rinerson said. "The normal way you protect against something is you identify a threat, protect against the threat, or you have a high-value target you want to protect from an unknown threat. Spreading money equally to all states so they don't bitch is not the right answer."

Rumblings Within States
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has been outspoken about the need to restructure the system, so states with greater needs receive adequate funding. "The administration is willing to hand out grants to places Al Qaeda couldn't find on a map, even if they were trying," she said in a press release.

But there are rumblings within states as well. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton released a report in October 2003 showing 49 of the 52 local communities polled in her state had not received any funds. Clinton said the money was held up in the state's capitol, Albany, even though states were supposed to disburse 80 percent of the money within 45 days.

It's not just New York.

Texas cities and counties express similar frustration -- they have been spending money on homeland security defense, mainly through overtime for officers, but promised reimbursement funds have been slow to arrive. Whether the delay was principally a federal problem or the holdup was at the state level is a matter of debate.

"What some states did, such as Texas and Illinois, was create their own rules," Perkosky said. "About 10 percent of the funds went directly to select local governments, and they held onto the rest."

The money was earmarked specifically for training and specific equipment -- "boots and suits." In lieu of a check, some states were creative in providing training and equipment, and others used the money for budget shortfalls and offered their own training to locals, according to Perkosky.

"[The states] said, 'If it's training you want, you need to come to us. We don't care if you want training on how to defuse a bomb, we're going to train you in anthrax identification.'"

San Antonio, Texas, was awarded $5.1 million in federal money in July 2003. On Dec. 1, 2003, Texas authorized the city to spend just 10 percent for physical security enhancements.

It's not all the city needs, and it's late, but they'll take it.

"I'm not sure if [the delay] was at the state level or federal level or somewhere in between," said Michael Miller, San Antonio's emergency management coordinator. "I just know it wasn't at the local level. We're ready to spend that money."

In a recent speech, Ridge said the DHS did its best. "We've moved quickly to get that money out the door. We approved 96 percent of the 2003 grant requests within four days -- and required states to obligate funding to cities within 45 days."

Though Miller hopes the process is improved for fiscal 2004, he was willing to attribute the previous years' troubles to growing pains. "It's a relatively new program, and the country is struggling with how do we best have a managed approach so we don't just throw money around?" he said. "We're looking at regional components that add some complexity to it too."

Texas distributed an online questionnaire to measure community needs. The 100-page document queried localities on their emergency management, law enforcement, public works personnel and equipment needs.

The state and the Texas A&M University Engineering Extension Service developed a template for each community to rate themselves, Miller said, adding that the state then compiled the numbers and developed a state plan by region.

From its assessment, San Antonio judged that more than $100 million was necessary to tend to its needs, but will "make the best" of the $5.1 million it received, Miller said. "Is it going to help? Yeah. Is it going to cover everything we need to do? No."

San Antonio is preparing to host the NCAA Final Four basketball championships in April, and will spend a lot to keep the event safe. Most of the money allocated for fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2003 is meant for equipment and training, which puts San Antonio and other jurisdictions in a bind.

Flexibility Wanted
Results of the Homeland Security Funding Survey, released by the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the International Association of Emergency Managers in October 2003, suggested counties would like more flexibility in how they can spend money. The starved counties overwhelmingly said they need money to pay police and fire personnel for overtime, according to Larry Naake, executive director of NACo.

"Our whole purpose of doing the survey was to find out if we could continue to support the money flowing through the states," he said, adding that so far, NACo will continue endorsing that process. Counties, however, would like the money in advance rather than being reimbursed.

It also doesn't help that some states have been creative in disbursing the money.

"In [one state], rather than giving the counties the money for equipment, the state sent down surplus equipment they had," Naake said.

In a section of the NACo survey reserved for comments, one county official suggested city and county officials keep a keen eye on what the state does with the money and "raise a little hell" if need be.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors distributed a press release in November 2003 expressing concern about the money flowing through the states, "especially since many cities have not yet seen fiscal '03 money." The release said money should be sent directly to cities.

But some cities that received money used it for wish-list-type items, according to sources.

In distributing funds based on population, the DHS allows state emergency services organizations to create operational areas at county and political subdivision levels. Two sources familiar with the local-level grant distribution process said "gentlemen's agreements" between local officials dictated how the money was spent.

One California city was fairly successful in its haul of homeland security funds, even though an attack is far less likely there than in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

"What basically happened was the police chief and fire chief got together and said, 'OK, this year we want fire trucks. Next year we know you want that little robot that works with the SWAT team,'" said one source, who wished to remain anonymous. "What happened in those gentlemen's agreements is that the more powerful chiefs and battalion chiefs were the ones getting the funds, not the ones who really needed it."

That happened in about 50 percent of states, the source said.

That sort of behavior is not conducive to improving already strained relationships between jurisdictions.

"Let's be realistic," the source said. "Cities don't always like one another. Cities and counties don't always like one another. When you use California as an example, and you use the example of operational areas for the division of homeland security funds, you only exacerbate that poor relationship."

The source said such methodology could increase incidents of struggles between powerful cities and counties, and less powerful cities and counties.

The Need for Interoperability
Most necessary at state and local levels, sources said, are emergency operation centers (EOCs), interoperable communications capabilities and money for personnel.

This is why Rinerson and others, such as the National Governors Association, say money should be funneled through states. Rinerson said the federal government should develop standards on how money is spent.

"The issue is really the standardization issue, and the feds really haven't done that yet," he said, adding that there must be a consensus and a standards-based way of procurement -- a plan that includes the local governments' wishes. "If the feds don't do it, then it falls down to the states to enact the standards-based methodology. The problem with that is we'll have 54 different standards."

Developing interoperability and push-to-talk capabilities would be using the money wisely, Rinerson said. It's not just police and fire that need that kind of capability, eCivic's Perkosky said, adding that public works-type personnel should be enlisted as eyes and ears of the community as well.

"Your tree trimmers, your grass collectors, your public works employee -- who's going to know the community better?" she said. "Who's going to know if something is out of place better than a street crew out there every day sweeping the streets?"

Perkosky said those types of personnel should be equipped with GIS functionality and proper communications tools to make notes, track information and relay information to police or fire departments.

"Certainly their radios don't have to be on the same level of interoperability and secure communications as police and fire," she said. "But they do need that equipment to participate in a holistic view of homeland security, and they don't have it."

A Change in 2004?
The general consensus is that to improve the disbursement of homeland security funds, a process change is needed, but the DHS has given mixed signals as to whether that will happen.

In early 2003, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge said the White House was working with Congress to develop a new formula. Later in the year he told Newsweek that may not happen. "I'm not sure we're ever going to come up with a formula," Ridge was quoted as saying.

Rinerson said he believes common sense will prevail, and the DHS will realize the current formula is flawed and basing funding on either protecting key assets or protecting against an identified threat are the best methodologies.

Perkosky is looking toward legislation for a solution. In November 2003, a bill authored by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., HR 3266, also called "Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders," passed through the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness and Response.

The bill would require Ridge to approve grants based on relevance to threat, vulnerability and consequences. It would also reduce the 12-step grant application process to two steps and allow Ridge to authorize grants to multistate or intrastate regions.

Perkosky is confident it will become law, and said she believes the bill will pass through the full committee this year. "I don't have anything to go on but gut instinct and watching the amount of lobbying being done on behalf of cities and counties, in particular the bigger ones," she said. "It would be a wonderful enhancement."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor