Homeland security dominates the consciousness of all levels of government. And though the spotlight is finally shining on the needs of local governments to respond to emergency situations, local governments still find themselves on the wrong end of the funding trail.
The Bush administration's recently released FY 2003 budget allocates a massive amount of funding for homeland security -- $37.7 billion, according to the Office of Homeland Security.
The FY 2003 budget also focuses on four specific policy initiatives in relation to that funding: supporting first responders, defending against bioterrorism, securing America's borders and using 21st-century technology to secure the homeland.
State and local governments bear the brunt of the responsibility in deploying first responders, and the president's budget earmarks $3.5 billion to support those efforts.
Despite that funding commitment, how those funds get to the right level of government is stirring debate across the country.
Creating a Money Trail
The Bush administration is proposing that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) act as the point and will "implement a streamlined and simple procedure designed to speed the flow of resources to the states and localities," according to the "President's Homeland Security Policy and Budget Priorities."
Though local governments are happy that federal funding is being made available, they have been lobbying the Office of Homeland Security to change the way funds are disbursed.
The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties have all been actively making their case to the Bush administration. Representatives of the NLC have visited Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials, and the NLC has created a Homeland Security Task Force to devise the appropriate strategy.
Mary Poss, member of the Dallas, Texas, city council, is a co-chair of the NLC's Homeland Security Task Force, along with Mayor Michael Guido, of Dearborn, Mich. The Task Force met in mid-February in Dallas to discuss local governments' role in preparing homeland security initiatives, Poss said.
"We have to continue working with the president and Congress to make sure that a larger share of the dollars that are available for homeland security are, indeed, given directly to the communities," she said. "We absolutely believe that the local fire chiefs, police chiefs and other personnel can make the best decisions about how money needs to be spent."
She said a group of NLC representatives met with the president and the Office of Homeland Security in January, noting that the Bush administration increased the recommended budget for direct funding to cities by 1,000 percent.
"We're very pleased with that, but we also believe that out of a total of $38 billion, there can be an even larger share available directly for local police, fire and medical," she said.
During the January meetings, representatives of the NLC lobbied hard for homeland security funds to be distributed to cities directly, along the lines of community development block grants.
"We always find that a certain percentage gets lost in administrative costs at the state level," Poss said. "It just makes more sense to get a bigger bang for the buck by giving it to communities directly. We don't need the state skimming a percentage for administrative costs."
Besides skimming, Poss also cited a considerable slowing down of the funding timeline when a state gets involved -- due to the state application process -- as another compelling reason for local governments to get the funding directly.
President Bush's plan stipulates that state emergency managers would keep 25 percent of the $3.5 billion first-responder funds and distribute the remaining 75 percent to local governments that provide a 25 percent "in-kind" match, the NLC said. Officials of the NLC worry that the so-called 25 percent "soft match" for all federal homeland security funds could prove to be an obstacle for communities that have the greatest need for federal support to enhance local efforts.
Despite the lobbying efforts of local government organizations, the federal government may have no choice but to disburse the funds in the normal manner, according to senior administration officials. At a background briefing held in mid-February, federal officials outlined their proposal for disbursing funds to state and local governments.
"Our proposal is that the program for providing assistance, training and equipment to first responders be consolidated within FEMA first," said a senior administration official. "FEMA will provide the money, as a first step, to the 50 states with which they have established relationships, and then provide a set percentage of it -- we're proposing 75 percent -- to local and county authorities."
Federal officials said they're aware of the wishes of local government organizations with respect to homeland security funding, but logistical problems stand in the way of distributing the funding directly to local governments.
"It is simply unworkable for the federal government to have a relationship with the literally thousands of local jurisdictions and authorities that are out there," said one senior official. "Each state is a patchwork of different counties, special districts and cities, and there's way too many for any federal government [agency] to manage equitably and efficiently the transfer of a large amount of training and equipment assistance to all those local governments.
"We really need to rely on the states to work with their localities and to be partners in that effort," he continued. "We are in no way cutting out the local and county officials. We've met with them a lot in developing this initiative, and we understand that many of them would have a preference to get the funding directly."
FEMA itself won't decide directly how the funding is allocated, the official said, noting that funding will differ dramatically among states and among regions within states.
"How the dollars will be allocated among the various local, county and state jurisdictions will be on a case-by-case basis," he said. "There is no formulaic answer to this, and each state will be responsible for developing a plan -- in fact, most of them already have done so -- for how they're going to do this.
"As part of that plan, we're going to be looking for certain things," he continued. "We're going to be looking for cost sharing. We're going to looking for mutual aid to ensure that they have arrangements with neighboring jurisdictions to provide assistance in times of crisis. We're going to be looking for some analysis of the needs."
New Ground for Governments
Sept. 11 has created another set of challenges for governments, and officials at all levels now find themselves working together in new ways.
"No one ever expected anything like the horrific tragedy of Sept. 11," Poss said. "Many communities across the country would not be prepared if it were to happen in their home town. We don't really have a system yet for the homeland security funds, but remember, all politics are local. No one is going to want the responsibility for having kept a community from becoming as prepared as it possibly could be.
"I really think that once everything is sorted out, everybody is going to move rapidly to make sure funding is allocated to the local communities as quickly as possible," she said. "There's too much work to be done. The president's recommendation is really strong. We're waiting on congressional approval of the budget and then, hopefully, we can move forward quickly."