Homeland security grants are becoming a local burden

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 21, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- Since 9/11, millions of dollars worth of homeland security grants have flowed to Washington state and its local governments for everything from bomb-defusing robots to planning and training to respond to a terrorist attack or a catastrophic earthquake.

But now, with state and local jurisdictions already struggling financially and considering sharp cuts in their own budgets, the Department of Homeland Security wants them to start sharing in the cost. The department has signaled it may require a 25 percent match to the grants. State, county and city officials say they don't have that type of money.

"There's no way," said Steve Bailey, director of Pierce County Emergency Management and president of the Washington State Emergency Managers Association. "We would lose millions of dollars. This is going to affect everybody."

Kathy Estes, Thurston County's emergency manager, said she and others were surprised by how much local governments are being asked to spend.

"It seems to us the federal government wants the locals to fund the homeland security program," Estes said. "It will be difficult for us to come up with any matching funds."

Swamped with responding to Hurricane Ike, officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security and administers the grants, were unavailable for comment. The department, however, already has alerted those receiving the grants that they should "anticipate and plan" for having to provide matching funds.

"The cash match requirements are being considered by FEMA, along with a number of other policy decisions," Marlene Phillips, an agency spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "But we do not expect a final decision in the near future."

Even so, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has introduced legislation to block the matching funds requirements. With Congress scheduled to adjourn by the end of the month and prospects of a post-election session uncertain, Murray acknowledged there may not be time to pass her bill.

Murray called the requirement for matching funds "irresponsible and unrealistic" and said cash-strapped local jurisdictions just don't have the funds to meet such requirements.

"Security has always been a federal responsibility," Murray said in an interview, adding that depending on increased funding from local governments could result in gaps in the nation's defenses and hamper the ability to respond not only to a terrorist attack but other possible disasters.

During the current fiscal year, Washington state, its counties and other local jurisdictions are receiving about $31 million in funding from the five main homeland security grant programs, said Jim Mullen, director of Washington state Emergency Management. But the grant system is extremely complex and it's difficult to say who is getting how much.

Over the past six years, Pierce County has received more than $13.6 million in grant funding. Since 9/11, Thurston County has received about $3.1 million, Benton and Whatcom counties nearly $1 million apiece.

But there are also other grants. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties received a $77 million urban security grant for planning, training and equipment, Bailey said.

"There is no way we can match that," Bailey said.

Among other things, Pierce County has used grant money to train 3,000 people to respond to emergencies, including police, firefighters and paramedics, along with water district, school district and hospital personnel.

"Everyone knows what the playbook is, everyone is using the same script," he said.

The money is not just to prepare for a terrorist incident.

"Osama bin Laden is not sitting in a cave in Pakistan plotting against the city of Tacoma," Bailey said. Pierce County, along with others, is engaged in "all hazards planning" including preparations for windstorms, floods, earthquakes and even volcanic dangers.

"We are almost totally grant dependant," said Bailey.

Earlier this year, Pierce County resorted to $7.1 million in budget cuts and fund transfers to cover shortfalls in sales tax and other revenues. Thurston County officials are requiring departments to cut $4 million by the end of the year and to trim their budgets by about 5 percent in 2009. Whatcom County is looking at a $2.9 million deficit.

"We are struggling through this budget cycle," said Don Boyd, deputy director of emergency management in the Whatcom County Sheriffs Office. "It would be a real concern if they (FEMA) started requiring a 25 percent match."

Robert Spencer, emergency management manager for Benton County, agreed.

"We might be able to make a match, but it would be pretty close," he said.

Washington state's Jim Mullen said federal officials have indicated they never promised to foot the entire bill for homeland defense, adding that there's a "philosophical divide" over who should be paying.

The idea to require a state or local match is arbitrary and "off the wall," Mullen said, adding that such a major change should not be made in the waning days of an administration.

"We are willing to do our part, but no one has ever defined what our part is," he said. "They are treating this like a typical three-year grant program rather than a national mission. They never promised it would last forever, but they have never sat down with us and talked about the future."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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