What’s Behind the Slow Flow of Federal Homeland Security Dollars to Local Jurisdictions?
New Haven, Conn., waits. As an applicant for Homeland security grants, the city has received big-ticket equipment, but other requests — some dating back to 2001 — remain unanswered.
“There’s equipment that’s been on our request list that we haven’t received,” says Karen DuBois-Walton, chief administrative officer for New Haven. “We’re told that [the requests are] still pending. I don’t know that we’ve been officially turned down and will never see that or if we’re just delayed to another funding round.”
Delays and uncertainty mark much of the Homeland Security funding process. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced new distribution rules that were designed to streamline the process, yet the changes resulted in a patchwork of application procedures that differ from state to state.
Facing substantial learning curves and working through them on a learn-as-you-go basis, state and local governments are caught in a time warp: They are resolving disbursement issues for fiscal year 2003 (FY03), even as deadlines for FY04 pass.
A ‘Primary Mechanism’
The DHS grant program comprises grants from the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Other federal agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice — offer additional security-related grants that are administered outside the DHS umbrella.
Since March 2003, DHS has distributed or allocated approximately $7 billion to states, territories and local governments for emergency preparedness and response. That includes $4 billion for FY04 grants.
FEMA and TSA grants are competitive, while ODP grants — totaling $2.2 billion in FY04 — are distributed according to a federal formula. “Based upon a formula from the Patriot Act, every state gets a base,” says Brian Roehrkassc, spokesperson for DHS. “Sixty percent of the entire $2.2 billion goes out as base, so each state gets an equal amount. The remaining 40 percent goes out based on the population of each state.”
In December 2003, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 established states as “the primary mechanism for delivery of federal preparedness assistance.” While FEMA and TSA grants are available for direct application (i.e., endusers can apply directly through DHS for money), ODP funds are now funneled through the states, which can keep up to 20 percent of the funds to cover administrative costs. The directive also instructed federal departments and agencies to “develop appropriate mechanisms to ensure rapid obligation and disbursement of funds from their programs to the states, from the states to the local community level, and from local entities to the endusers.”
Prior to the directive, DHS began preparing states for their new role in funds distribution. For example, it required each state to create a State Administrative Agency (SAA), and it created a Web site (www.dhs.gov/grants) listing all available grants and providing links for online application.
But the preparation ended there. Each state was left to its own devices when it came to actual distribution of funds. While some established procedures allowing cities and counties to apply directly to the state for funding, others allowed applications for purchases only, and still others funneled the money to local entities, where committees sorted out distribution for themselves.
In the state of Washington, Homeland security funds are passed from the state to nine regions, corresponding to the state’s public health jurisdictions. “The state makes an allocation, based predominantly on population,” says Brent Wingstrand, assistant chief of the Seattle Police Department in charge of the Emergency Preparedness Bureau. “There is an entity in each of the regions that coordinates how the money gets spent.”
King County — comprising 39 towns and cities, including Seattle — is a region unto itself. The county’s Emergency Management Advisory Council, a 20-person council that includes representatives from multiple disciplines and jurisdictions, makes the final decision on Homeland security spending. (Seattle, which represents one-third of the county’s population and 50 percent during the day, has one vote on the council.)
The group considers grant applications on a competitive basis, and, with so many entities competing for funds, decision-making is slow. “It’s difficult to determine the priorities and to move quickly,” Wingstrand says. “It’s not because there’s any ill will; it’s just a very difficult process to try and work your way through.”
The council is not ready to address FY04 spending, Wingstrand says. “We’re wrestling with guidance for the FY03 Supplemental money that still hasn’t been dealt with,” he notes. (For FY03, Congress allocated money to DHS in the Omnibus Budget and a Supplemental Budget.) “We’ll break [the money] up into different categories — equipment, training, exercise, administration — and then, within those categories, we’ll entertain proposals from either disciplines or jurisdictions about how to spend the money.”
While Washington is distributing money through regions, Minnesota is allocating its Homeland security funds to counties (there are 87 in the state). The state determines the spending priorities (i.e., whether a grant can be used for equipment purchases, training, exercises, etc.), and the counties provide guidance to cities and towns for application.
“There has not been any way to get direct Homeland security dollars without going through that county process,” says Joy Rikala, chief of the Minnetonka (Minn.) Police Department. “We would say, ‘These are our needs,’ and the county would come back periodically and say ‘We have money in this area; apply through us.’”
In Minnesota, when a city’s application is approved, the city does not receive cash. Instead, purchases for equipment and/or services are made by counties on the cities’ behalf.
For example, the Minnetonka Police Department has requested subscriber units as part of a planned 800 Megahertz radio system. “The money goes to Hennepin County, and the county purchases them,” Rikala says. “We receive no direct money.”
The indirect funding is troublesome, Rikala says, noting that direct funding, such as that available through the Department of Justice’s COPS program, is more efficient. “We are quite concerned that the process has been made much more cumbersome by having to go through the states,” she explains. “In our case, there are two extra roadblocks: The money comes through the state and then goes to the counties.”
Those roadblocks create delays. The Minnetonka Police Department has received 25 personal protective suits for its officers, but it is waiting for action on other requests. For example, the county approved the department’s request for subscriber units last September, but, three months later, it had not placed the order. Similarly, the department requested gas masks last March, but, as of December, it had not received the equipment.
“We keep hearing that more and more of this money is being disseminated, and it still has not reached local governments,” Rikala says. “In those situations where the funding [is used to] purchase equipment, we need to be able to speed up the process instead of having all this stuff in the queue and wondering when it is ever going to come.”
Improving, But Not Up to Speed
Like Minnesota, Connecticut has established its funding program to allow cities and towns to apply for equipment purchases rather than cash. In 2002, New Haven received $500,000 worth of equipment, including personal protective equipment and a decontamination trailer. In 2003, the city was awarded a bomb unit that will be delivered this year.
“The funding cycle went significantly better in 2002 and 2003 than it did in prior years,” DuBois-Walton says. “The state did a much better job of coordinating with the local municipalities around the purchases. Before, we had much less of a say in terms of what was purchased on our behalf.”
In the absence of a county structure, Connecticut set up a three-tiered funding mechanism, making the most populous cities — New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury — its first priority. “Those [cities received] the first round of funding, and they worked down from there to the smaller cities and then to smaller, more rural towns,” DuBois-Walton explains. “We have to wait until they get through all of the rural towns before we get back [to the top of the list]. We’re waiting for that next round.”
Despite improvements in state-local coordination, DuBois-Walton says Connecticut cities face delays. “The state had very little time to plan how the money would actually be disbursed, how we would apply for it, and what documentation would be required,” she notes. “It has a small staff of people working on this, and they’re trying to deal with 169 different town and city governments, and a couple of tribal nations. Things don’t always feel as though they’re moving along as quickly as we might need.”
In addition to applying for ODP funds, New Haven has applied for — and received — TSA dollars. In 2003, the city was awarded $200,000, which it used to purchase security cameras, lighting and fencing for New Haven Port. A second grant, totaling $170,000, will be used to purchase a patrol boat.
Cities can apply to TSA, as well as to FEMA, for direct funding through the agencies’ competitive grant programs. “Those are pretty quick because the money is direct; it goes from federal agencies straight to the city,” says Jake Sullivan, federal relations officer for Boston.
In June 2002, TSA awarded Boston $2.87 million for two high-speed security boats and a command-center boat, to be used by the Boston Police Department in Boston Harbor. Boston also has received $725,000 from FEMA for computer/communications upgrades and mobile data terminals within the city’s Fire Department.
Direct and Detailed
Like Connecticut, Massachusetts does not have county governments. For ODP funding, cities apply to the state through a competitive application process, and awards are capped at $2 million. “We apply with our needs, and they say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay,’” Sullivan says.
Boston has received ODP money for personal protective equipment, but its primary exposure to ODP comes through the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). Introduced in the FY03 budget, the UASI program assists “urban areas that have greater needs [based on factors] such as population density, amount of critical infrastructure and threats against a particular area,” Roehrkassc explains. Boston — as well as New Haven and Seattle — is one of 50 UASI cities that, in FY04, will receive a total of $725 million.
Cities do not apply for UASI status but are, instead, designated by DHS as fund recipients. Falling under the ODP grant program, the money is allocated to the states and is passed directly to the designated cities. (Even if a state has established counties as the decision-making entities for security-related funding, the UASI money bypasses those entities.)
UASI cities must work for their money, Sullivan notes. “As a requirement of the grant, we had to complete an assessment of 10 disciplines — including police, fire, emergency management services, public health, hospitals, government administration and public works — in the Boston urban area, working with eight contiguous cities,” he explains. “We assessed all their capabilities: How many personnel do you have? What are they trained to do? What equipment do they have? What kind of equipment do you want?”
Boston then consulted with the other cities to develop a strategy for addressing gaps in training, exercise and equipment needs, and it submitted that strategy to the state. “The state has to concur with the city’s application,” Sullivan says. “If they don’t grant concurrence, we have to settle the issues between us. Both parties have to agree on what goes in [the strategy].” The city also has submitted a UASI budget, and, once all documents are accepted by the state, they will be submitted to ODP for final approval.
Under the FY03 Supplemental Budget, Boston was awarded $16.7 million in UASI funds. From May 2003 to January 2004, the city conducted its assessment, and submitted its strategy and budget to the state. Boston also was awarded $19 million in the FY04 budget, but, according to Sullivan, “we haven’t even come to that bridge yet.”
For New Haven, UASI funding was a complete surprise. “The announcement was made that we had received [$9.6 million], and we were getting calls from the press asking, ‘What’s this all about,’ and we were still trying to figure it out,” DuBois-Walton says. “We were certainly happy to know we’d been awarded it, but what was it? What could it be used for? We didn’t know.”
Nor did the state know. “The expertise was not there,” DuBois-Walton says. “Folks were learning about it at the same time we were learning about it. So, in some ways, the complications [of Homeland security funding are related to] the organization of communications from the federal government to the states.”
In fact, many UASI cities are well ahead of the learning curve compared to their state governments. In 2003, DHS directed all SAAs to develop comprehensive Homeland security strategies, but the UASI awards preceded that directive. As a result, many cities had completed their strategies before states had begun their own assessments.
“We are a little bit out in front of [the state] because of being a UASI city,” Sullivan says. “We did our assessments prior to them doing theirs. So we certainly advise them on the difficulties with collecting information as well as successes and how we were able to do it.”
‘Getting Through It’
For New Haven, the UASI money provides the means to fulfill some of the city’s long-awaited equipment requests and to meet some of its needs for training and radio communications. Will it also create bias? For instance, will state or local decision-makers — those charged with awarding the Homeland security money — regard UASI cities as one less mouth to feed?
“We’re wondering whether we can anticipate anything beyond this $9.6 million,” DuBois-Walton says. “We have a list, and the UASI money will go a long way in helping us meet our needs, but it’s not going to do all of what we need to do. So we will continue to seek additional Homeland security funds.”
“There’s language from ODP that says that UASI money is targeted because there’s exceptional need,” Wingstrand says. “We are not supposed to be penalized in the other grant areas because of the receipt of that money.”
For now, cities have little choice but to work with their states and local disbursement entities. They are weathering the growing pains of new federal and state agencies, and enduring the bumps and bruises that come with new directives.
“I wouldn’t say that [the funding process] is smooth,” Sullivan says. “A lot of intricate issues come to light when you’re applying across disciplines and across departments for funding. It gets complicated, moving and delivering equipment and putting in purchase orders. But we’re doing it, and we’re getting through it.”