Beyond the funding battle

National League of Cities

In a White House speech early last year to about 300 mayors, President Bush pledged $3.5 billion to help the nation's fire, police and emergency medical workers beef up homeland security. Calling it "necessary money," Bush said it represented a "1,000-percent increase" from past federal assistance to first responders.

"We've got a lot of work to do. But that's how I got elected. And it starts with cooperation. And I can assure you, this government is willing to cooperate," he said to loud applause.

The mayors' applause, however, has turned into criticism. Disgruntled about the training, overtime and equipment costs associated with responding to security alerts and some of the worst budget deficits in history, state and local officials in the months that followed Bush's speech became increasingly agitated that the promise of federal funding for first responders did not materialize. They have been left to figure out how to fund the demands of heightened security and emergency response.

In mid-February, Congress gave state and local governments $2.05 billion in the fiscal 2003 consolidated spending bill and followed that up with another $2.23 billion in a supplemental bill (see box, Page 22). But it is unclear how much of that money represents new spending and how much is a shift of current spending in other state and local programs to homeland security.

Even if it is all new money, state and local officials are demanding more — up to $12 billion by some accounts — and quicker distribution of funds.

But funding is only part of the issue, homeland security experts say. It's not just a matter of how much money is available, they say, but how the money is spent. Ever so slowly, a debate about funding levels has turned into a debate about priorities — and who should set those priorities.

It is becoming clear that government agencies need to think beyond their own jurisdictions to develop comprehensive and coordinated intergovernmental or even regional plans. Only then can federal, state and local governments begin using networks to share information.

But nearly 20 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, experts said such planning is uneven nationwide. "I find it extraordinarily troubling that there's still this great inconsistency throughout the country on how we're dealing with this issue on a local basis," said John Cohen, a former local police officer and congressional investigator who now advises cities and states on homeland security matters.

"I think that funding is part of the issue," he said. "But it's not just funding. It's also strategic direction and vision and philosophy. We haven't, from a national perspective, created that clear vision yet so that each police chief knows what homeland security means to every other police chief."

A Monumental Task

The funding and planning issues are stymied in part by the complexity of the task.

Federal, state and local governments have experience coordinating their activities in specific, bounded sectors such as education and health care. Homeland security, however, cuts across multiple boundaries. It's not simply a law enforcement or emergency management issue, but it is also a defense, health, transportation, food processing and environmental issue.

"It's hard to set the priorities because nobody knows exactly what they ought to be," said Arnold Howitt, a Harvard University professor who directs the Kennedy School of Government's Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness, a terrorism preparedness research program sponsored by the Justice and Transportation departments.

"And we know that the budget is too small to do all the things that most people probably think are priorities," he said.

Local governments are trying to balance homeland security with other functions. A high priority is offsetting expenses associated with homeland security, such as overtime pay for officers covering for others who are in training when the terror alert status is elevated.

According to estimates, municipalities spent a combined $2.6 billion from Sept. 11, 2001, through 2002, mostly for overtime pay. The U.S. Conference of Mayors projected the recent elevated terror alert status and war in Iraq burdened cities nationwide with an extra $70 million per week.

Like other municipal officials, John DeStefano Jr., mayor of New Haven, Conn., and president of the National League of Cities, criticized the Bush administration and Congress, saying partisanship was responsible for the delay in funds.

"Whether it's communication interoperability or, frankly, whether it's developing capacity to respond to bio- or chemical terror threats or the potential for an incident at a high-risk site...folks just want to get going on it. It's getting kind of late," he said.

More federal money should be coming, said Bud DeFlaviis, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who served as a volunteer firefighter. He said the federal government initially was slow in distributing money, but "now it's finally getting its due attention," he said. "But then again, you have all the priorities you have to do and it's tough."

The federal government also needs to be "more honest," DeStefano said. The administration shouldn't provide more homeland security money and then cut existing federal grant programs, such as the Community Oriented Policing Services, a major funding source for the law enforcement community. Congress funded the community services program at $1.01 billion in fiscal 2002, but proposes to combine the program with two other law enforcement programs and fund all three at $585 million, according to the National League of Cities.

In an April 22 Webcast with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Josh Filler, director of state and local government coordination at the Homeland Security Department (DHS), said the fiscal 2003 supplemental funds demonstrate the federal government's commitment to get money to state and local governments quickly. For example, states that receive a portion of the $1.3 billion earmarked for first responders have 45 days to send it to local governments.

Follow the Money

How the money is distributed is one of the critical issues state and local governments are debating.

During the past year and a half, state and local officials have had frequent rancorous debates about whether federal funding should be distributed through the states, as generally envisioned, or go directly to municipalities.

Cities and counties, which typically are the first to respond to a crisis, argue that they should receive funding directly, rather than having it pass through the states. They envision some form of block grants, similar to those issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Howitt said larger cities make a legitimate argument because states tend to spread out such funds evenly across cities. Bigger cities — which are higher-risk targets — wind up with less money per capita than smaller municipalities.

DHS recently announced $100 million in first responder grants to seven large metropolitan areas to fund anti- terrorism preparedness and response initiatives. The cities include New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston. Department officials chose the cities based on their high population density, amount of critical infrastructure and the high risk they pose for terrorist attacks. Another $700 million also will be used for this purpose although recipient cities haven't been identified yet.

But the priorities that federal and state governments set typically do not match cities' or counties' priorities. Local governments, in particular, tend to emphasize "boots and suits." Fearing intentional releases of deadly pathogens and terrorist strikes, cities have long laundry lists of needs including biohazard suits, detection equipment, specialized training and exercises, and vehicles.

No one disputes the need for such staples, but many federal, state and local officials also point out the need to link disparate databases, boost information sharing, and improve radio and other forms of communication. The problem is how to prioritize the needs.

"Candidly, more people are more afraid of bombs and bacteria than a lack of information sharing," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

But Miller said information sharing and "boots and suits" are critical. "My feeling is you can't have one without the other," he said. He said interoperable radio communications could have saved the lives of some New York City firefighters Sept. 11.

State officials believe they have an important role to play in sorting priorities.

Rock Regan, Connecticut's chief information officer, said a balance has to be struck in using security dollars. He said many state officials fear funds will be dispersed without a widely agreed-upon plan, which might make the problem worse.

Consultant Cohen, whose company, PSComm LLC, advises Detroit, Arizona and Massachusetts on homeland security, said someone needs to articulate whether homeland security means equipping fire and police departments with biohazard suits and vehicles or creating information and disease surveillance systems.

"One may not be any more right than the other," he said. "I think the problem is that no one's decided what it is yet. And so as a result, what's happening is each individual local community is determining for themselves what is meant by homeland security and where they're going to place the priority for state-applied funding."

A Different Model

Increasingly, some local officials believe the federal/state/ local approach to governance limits how governments can develop workable solutions.

Some cities are developing a regional approach, with geographically contiguous agencies jointly conducting threat analyses and vulnerability assessments and forming strong mutual aid agreements, DeStefano said. Local officials are in a better position to know their needs because of each region's peculiarities, he said.

Police Chief Jim Montgomery of Bellevue, Wash., said planning there has been almost exclusively at the local or subregional level, with some interaction with relevant state agencies. There has been no statewide, comprehensive plan, but that may not be necessary, he said.

"Is it appropriate for us all to go through extensive planning for biological and other sorts of things? Probably not," he said. "The trick, I think, for most planners is to get your arms around the appropriate level of planning, because you don't want to cry wolf with the community. And even if you do the planning, it demands subsequent planning to be kept up all the time."

Others argue that states should coordinate regional planning. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge "has made it pretty clear that there can't be several thousand strategies and that he's looking at trying to have 50 state strategies, which necessarily are state and local strategies," said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who now heads EDS' state and local business.

DHS' Filler said the federal government prefers to funnel funds through state governments because the states need to play "the role of strategic thinker and strategic planner."

Chuck Blanchard, director of Arizona's homeland security office, said states have a broader picture of how funds can be distributed. According to the federal formula, states have 45 days to disperse 80 percent of funds to municipalities.

"Every city in a community doesn't need the same set of equipment," he said. "What they really need is the capacity within a metropolitan area to respond to a major disaster."

Blanchard has been on the job since February, and with a new governor, state officials have held discussions with the first- responder community and agreed that interoperable communications is their No. 1 need.

The state is planning to use some of its funds to conduct an engineering study and identify where various radio frequency signals are available to maximize interoperability "for every dollar we spend," Blanchard said.

"If you [lend money] directly to the cities, could you have done this? The answer is yes, but it would have been a lot more difficult than my office coming up with a plan, working on the details and then presenting the plan to the stakeholders to say, 'Is this something we should do?' " he said.

*** Fiscal 2003 consolidated budget bill

Total spending package: $397.4 billion

To first responders: $2.05 billion

$1 billion administered by the Office for Domestic Preparedness for equipment, exercises, training and planning.

$750 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Assistance to Firefighters grant program.

$165 million in FEMA grants to help state and local governments better respond to hazards through preparedness activities and emergency management.

$60 million for existing urban search and rescue teams.

$25 million for interoperable communications equipment.

$25 million for emergency operations centers.

$20 million for community emergency response teams.

Source: National Association of Counties

Fiscal 2003 supplemental appropriations bill

Total spending package: $79 billion

To first responders: $2.23 billion

$1.3 billion administered by the Office for Domestic Preparedness, with 80 percent going to localities within 45 days and 20 percent to states to help assist first responders.

$200 million for critical infrastructure grants with no less than 50 percent going to local governments.

$700 million provided as discretionary grants to address security requirements in high-threat, high-density urban areas containing infrastructure designated critical by the Homeland Security Department's secretary. $30 million for direct technical assistance to states.

Source: Homeland Security Department

Fiscal 2004 appropriations bill (proposed)

Total spending package: $2.23 trillion

To first responders: $3.5 billion

$500 million in grants to firefighters.

$500 million for state and local law enforcement terrorism prevention initiatives.

$181 million for the Citizen Corps.

Allocations for remaining funds have not been detailed.

Source: Homeland Security Department


  • innovation (Sergey Nivens/

    VA embraces procurement challenges at scale

    Steve Kelman applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs' ambitious attempt to move beyond one-off prize-based contests to combat veteran suicides more effectively.

  • big data AI health data

    Where did the ideas for shutdowns and social distancing come from?

    Steve Kelman offers another story about hero civil servants (and a good president).

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.