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Uncle Sam Gets Grant Happy

But critics contend that the security funding allocation process lacks consistency.

When Stafford County, Va., needed federal money for
its regional wireless communications network, it
asked, "Can you hear me?" Uncle Sam emphatically
responded, "I can hear you just fine." Stafford and
several neighboring counties and towns in rural
Virginia hatched an ambitious plan to build their own
communications network with enough extra towers and network
redundancy to give first responders nearly 100 percent coverage
across the mountainous region.

Before sending out requests for proposals on the project, the
group had to perform a $30,000 technical needs assessment. But
where can rural communities come up with that kind of cash?
In this case, the money for the needs assessment came through
a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

After completing the assessment, which put a $3.2 million price
tag on the future communications network, the next step involved
finding out which localities wanted to go ahead with the project.

"We're now in discussions with all local county and city
governments and are waiting to hear who's interested in moving
forward," says Capt. Timothy O'Leary of Stafford's sheriff's
department. "Then we'll go out and seek the additional funding."

Based on a track record of federal grant requests dating from
before the official formation of DHS, Stafford County has the grant
application process down to a science, O'Leary says. "If the funds
are out there, and you've got the time and determination, you should
apply for as many of them as you can," he advises.

In 2004, DHS earmarked more than $4 billion for state
homeland security grants. The House Select Committee on
Homeland Security earlier this year gave DHS high marks for
quickly allocating federal money to state coffers for dissemination
to localities such as Stafford County.

The pipeline to the states flows freely because "overall, the
application process is very simple,"
says David Kaufman, deputy associate
director of the Office for Domestic
Preparedness (ODP), a manager of
Homeland Security's grants.

But some critics, including Rep.
Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman
of the House Select Committee on
Homeland Security, believe homeland
security funds might not be going to
the most important projects because of
inadequate allocation decisions and
methodology. According to some
critics, the federal government is
trading safety for efficiency.

"States are overwhelmed by the
amount of money coming through
the pipeline," says Rod Helm,
managing partner with Grant Writing USA, a Las Vegas consulting
group that trains public officials about how to navigate the grant
process. "Since Sept. 11, 2001, millions of dollars more have been
coming through the pipeline, and the infrastructure isn't able to
manage it all. It's essentially an unfunded mandate to manage this
money."

Pork Barrel Politics?

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a
Washington, D.C., think tank, published a study last year entitled,
"What Does Homeland Security Spending Buy?" which pointed out
problems due to pork barrel politics that may increase
vulnerabilities to terrorism. The study, which was written by
Veronique de Rugy, a research fellow at the institute and an adjunct
scholar at the Washington-based Cato Institute, concluded:
"Because most of the money is allocated on a political basis rather
than being allocated on a sound cost-benefit basis, much of the new
spending will not result in sound security."

California's Cox authored legislation designed to base grant
allocations entirely on risk assessments, which conceivably could
mean some states would get less or even no homeland security
funding. "Thus far, most grants are being made without a rigorous
assessment of risk," Cox said in his analysis last spring. Sen. Susan
Collins (R-Maine) has also introduced legislation that would put
more emphasis on risk assessment.

At issue is an entrenched tradition about how the government
distributes funds. Through fiscal 2004, DHS guaranteed each state
a minimum of 0.75 percent, or about $13 million in first-responder
homeland security grants, according to the American Enterprise
Institute. Congress mandated base allotments for each state. States
also receive funding from DHS' Urban Areas Security Initiative,
using a complex formula to determine relative risks. "Congress
asked us to consider threat levels, population size and density,
critical infrastructures and other factors," ODP's Kaufman says.

However, according to the American Enterprise Institute, those
additional allotments don't adequately account for risk. For
example, the think tank points out that a low-population state such
as Wyoming received $35.30 per person in 2003, while California
and New York, with the highest population densities, received $4.69
and $5.05 per person, respectively.

The base allocations are "the peanut butter approach—you
spread it around so everything gets
covered," says Eric Holdeman, risk-assessment proponent and director of
the Office of Emergency Management
and the Homeland Security
coordinator for King County in
Washington state. King County, which
includes Seattle, is one of three
counties that together comprise about
52 percent of the state's population.
Major employers include several
military bases, Boeing Aircraft and
corporate headquarters of Microsoft
and Starbucks.

"We've got 200-plus years of
history behind the base-allocation
approach," Holdeman says. "But the
sooner we get to a risk-based
strategy—and considering population density is one way to do
that—the better.

"If you listened to bin Laden's latest speech, he was threatening
to hit America's economy. While agriculture could be a target in the
future, there are higher priority infrastructure protection
requirements that still need to be addressed."

Montana, a sparsely populated state with numerous farming and
ranching communities, sees the battle from both sides. The state,
which is home to about 918,000 people, received a total of $20.7
million in various homeland security grant allotments in 2004.
Some critics complain that the state benefited from the base
allocation formula.

But when wish lists from statewide municipalities far surpassed
the total for one homeland security grant, the state imposed its own
risk assessments to prioritize spending. For instance, it allotted
about $3 million to the Montana Board of Crime control. "When
we asked for input from local governments, we received responses
that would have totaled $6 million to $7 million," says Roland
Mena, executive director of the Montana Board of Crime Control.

Since Mena and the board considered it unlikely that the
homeland security grant pipeline would remain open indefinitely,
they wanted to accomplish as much as possible with a single, clearly
focused project. After evaluating various options, the Montana
board awarded funds for initial construction of an interoperable
radio system for the counties and Indian reservations along
Montana's 547-mile border with Canada.

"Rather than everyone getting a little piece of the grant, we said
we were going to strategically target the funds for the most efficient
use," Mena says. "This breaks ranks with how this money has been
allocated historically."

In time, the radio system will roll out statewide, but the
initial deployment that the DHS grants are funding won't
bring a single dollar's worth of connectivity to some localities
in the state. "We had to prioritize," Mena says. "If we spread
this out in a statewide allocation, I don't think we would
have gotten a big bang for the buck."

Chris Christensen, Montana's grants planning bureau chief, puts
it even more succinctly. "We decided it was better to buy one good
car rather than letting everyone buy a piece of a car that no one could
get anywhere in," he says.

Dealing With a Funding Logjam

Allotment strategies aren't the only lightening rods for criticism of
homeland security grants. California's Cox has estimated that as
much as 85 percent of the money allocated for first responders stalls
in the pipeline between federal and state governments. Once the
money reaches the state level, bottlenecks can form.

In some cases, state infrastructures get overwhelmed by the new
responsibilities; other times, states officials are confused about
federal rules for what constitutes a homeland security project. Last
spring, an Office of Inspector General report supported Cox's
assessment, reporting that state delays in completing the
assessment plans required by DHS contributed to the problems.

ODP's Kaufman says his department continues to work closely
with states to refine the assessment process and to build in as much
local control as possible. "At the local level, we asked them to look
at threat levels, vulnerability, capabilities and needs," he says. "They
aggregated that information at the state level into a multiyear
strategy for achieving the requisite level of preparedness across the
state. We then judge grant requests in terms
of how the resources will be used to
implement that strategy."

That's a double-edged sword, says King
County's Holdeman. "There's been an
evolution process as the feds figured out
what the standards are," he says. "First it
was, 'Do a threat assessment'; then it was, 'Do
a strategic plan.' Then they tried to figure out
what it all meant." Despite the challenges,
Holdeman is optimistic about the process.
It's not always straightforward, he says, "but
it hasn't killed anybody."

Reacting to criticism, DHS Secretary Tom
Ridge, who plans to step down from his post
in February, created a task force to interview
state and local officials and develop
recommendations for improving the grant
dispersal system. Last June, the task force
published its recommendations, which
called for greater centralization of grant
programs in DHS.

The task force also recommended
exempting fiscal 2005 homeland security
grants from the Cash Management
Improvement Act of 1990, which imposes a
maximum five-day limit between when the
federal government deposits funds and
when grantees spend the funds.

Because the grants reimburse localities
for expenses, cash-strained local officials
sometimes find themselves financially
strapped in the interim between spending
and reimbursement. The task force proposal
would send the grant money to
municipalities up to three months before they need to spend it.

"We have the ultimate Catch-22," stated Mitt Romney,
Massachusetts governor and the task force chairman, when
publicly announcing the proposals. "We can't buy it until we have
the money in our account, but they won't give us the money until
we've bought it."

Tweaking the Process

DHS continues to streamline the grant process, Kaufman says.
"Every year, we talk with states to find out what should be tweaked,
what should be changed." Consolidating grants is a big part of that
strategy. "We're moving more and more to one big bucket of grant
money rather than a series of different funds," he adds.

To distribute the funds that are earmarked for 2005, DHS' Office
of Domestic Preparedness merged six formerly separate grant
programs into one grant package. This enables local governments
to use a single application to apply for any of the six grants
available.

"We are trying to streamline the process and to provide as much
integration across program areas as possible," Kaufman says.

"We're also synchronizing the guidance and program requirements
that we provide to states and local governments so that the
information aligns well and is mutually supportive, and so that the
administrative process required for the states to gain access to funds
is minimized."

Managing paperwork isn't DHS' only
contribution to homeland security. When
necessary, it offers states technical
assistance to conduct vulnerability
assessments for operations such as mass-transit systems or for continuity of
operations planning and equipment
maintenance. "In all, we offer 45 different
training courses, all available for free if
they're taken to support the goals and
objectives laid out in the local homeland
security strategy," Kaufman explains.

Such initiatives by DHS are steps in the
right direction, according to King
County's Holdeman. "They have heard the
criticisms, and they've moved," he says.
Still, Holdeman hopes for even greater
flexibility in the years ahead.

It's difficult—and perhaps impossible—to differentiate the needs of the first
responders who must take action in the
event of terrorist attacks or natural
disasters. "I know that some funding is
required only for responses to weapons of
mass destruction," says Holdeman, "but,
out here, we need to approach hazardous
materials in a comprehensive way.

"A terrorist attack is possible here, but
not an absolute. On the other hand, we
know natural disasters will definitely
happen at some point. Much of what we
do for terrorism also allows us to
improve preparedness for other types of
disasters."

DOUBLE DOWN

Homeland security funding has
more than doubled since 2002.
These funds are distributed
through 32 federal agencies,
but more than 90 percent of the
total allotment goes through five
departments: Defense, Energy,
Health and Human Services,
Justice and Homeland Security.

2002: $20.6 billion

2003: $42.2 billion

2004: $41.4 billion

2005: $47.4 billion

Source: Budget of the United States Government,
Fiscal Year 2005

Dec 31 2009

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