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.

Block Grants

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"