DHS grants target urban areas

Cities, counties battle states for funds for first responders



The Homeland Security Department is trying to speed federal aid to the nation's first responders by changing how it allocates grant money.

In response to complaints that local jurisdictions aren't receiving funds quickly enough, DHS has earmarked more funds for high-threat urban areas and less for states in its proposed fiscal 2005 budget.

In 2004, the department provided $1.7 billion in grants to states and $725 million directly to urban areas for first response. However, the 2005 budget reverses the allocation by providing $750 million to states and $1.4 billion to high-density, high-threat urban areas.

"The locals are really being empowered. The Department of Homeland Security is limiting the amount of broad state funding and starting to target specific cities and counties," said James Krouse, manager of state and local IT market analysis with research firm Input Inc., Reston, Va.

Under the grant rules, states are required to forward 80 percent of the funds they receive for first responders to local governments, and are allowed to spend the remaining 20 percent as they see fit to support first response throughout the state.

Meanwhile, DHS announced in March that it is forming a task force to study first-responder funding in an effort to further improve the grant process.

All of this is good news to technology companies that have been waiting for opportunities to materialize.

A war of words over homeland security grants broke out earlier this year between organizations representing the nation's governors and mayors.

In February, the Washington-based National Governors Association convened a homeland security meeting at which a panel of five state homeland security officials asserted that decisions about how first-responder funds are spent should be made at the state level and not by local governments.

The state homeland security directors also dismissed criticism from the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors about the role states play in allocating federal grant money to local municipalities. In a subsequent press release, one homeland security director compared the criticism of the mayors to that of a soccer game of six-year-olds.

"Everyone wants the ball, and they are all kicking themselves in the shins to get it," said Tim Lowenberg, Washington state's homeland security advisor. "The problem is nobody is protecting the flanks, and nobody is protecting the goal, but that is what we are protecting. The states are focused on building teamwork and discipline."

A few days later, U.S. Conference of Mayors Executive Director Tom Cochran lashed out at NGA and the state homeland security directors.

"It is an insult to the nation's mayors and to the men and women in their police and fire departments for the homeland security director of one state to compare the mayors' funding concerns to a 'soccer game of six year olds,' " Cochran said in a press release.

The mayors aren't the only ones frustrated. A survey by the Washington-based National Association of Counties found that 40 percent of those participating in the survey had not received any funds.

Dalen Harris, NACO's associate legislative director, said the delay is because of a lack of familiarity of some counties with the grant process and the short timeframe the DHS has to establish and refine the process.

"The Department of Homeland Security is only one year old. When you have the influx of cash into an agency beefing up its capabilities for technical assistance and grant funding, you are going to have growing pains," he said.

As for the states, it is in their best interests to forward the funds as quickly as possible to the local governments, Harris said.

"The Department of Homeland Security has said time and again that these funds are for local, and it is not in the states' best interests to hold up the funds," he said.

NGA Spokeswoman Christine LaPaille said part of the problem stems from the fact that local communities are accustomed to a quick influx of funds following natural disasters.

The governors "never felt that the issue should be how fast we can get the money out," she said. "It is a deliberative process to provide funds in a strategic manner to protect the critical assets of a state and the citizens of a state."

Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief with market research firm Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va., said both state and local governments have valid claims to first crack at the funds.

On the one side, the money needs to get to cities and counties as fast as possible, because that is where the need is greatest. On the other side, states are trying to justify projects and save money by deploying integrated solutions across major regions of the states.

"The appeal is that [the state] might be able to achieve a greater level of interoperability," he said. *

Staff Writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

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