Budget Axe Looms Large Over Local First Responders

A proposed 2012 budget bill in the House of Representatives slashes the current level of local first responder funding, with the biggest cuts coming in areas critical to anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness. 

American community leaders are reeling. They did not see this coming. Many of their leaders are in a state of shock and denial.  The United States Congress is prepared to make heavy cuts in homeland security grant funding unlike anything they had imagined.
While Congress shaved local first responder funding by about 20% for 2011, their current plans for 2011 are to cut 67% from the FY 2010 level of $3 billion to $1 billion overall.
The Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) which was created to help enhance capabilities in the most at-risk cities will go from a high of 64 cities down to 10 cities under the current House of Representatives proposal.  Cities that were making great headway enhancing capabilities are going to lose ground on preparedness.
This means that potentially 54 cities will lose funding. This includes major U. S. cities from Miami to Seattle, from San Diego to Baltimore, from Detroit to Las Vegas.
The $1 billion remaining, based on the draft legislation, would need to fun nine formerly separate grant programs and would leave it to the Secretary of Homeland Security to determine how best to use it. 
States will also feel the impact. Many will be left with the minimum amount of funding required and they will need to drastically curtail programmatic activities.
What will the impact be?
The impact will not be felt immediately as prior year grant funding is still in the pipeline.  While previous grant funding levels had been generous, cities, counties, territories, and states will need to start a process of program contraction.  Emergency equipment purchases will be curtailed, grant-funded positions will begin to be cut and projects closed out ‑ many planned initiatives will need to be re-evaluated and some will be cancelled.

Can previous enhancements be maintained?
While many capability enhancements are already in place, there is an ongoing cost of sustaining preparedness.  Equipment replacement and upgrades, staffing, training, and exercising are all part of the improvement cycle.  Without sufficient funding to replace or update equipment, develop new plans, maintain existing plans, and provide training and exercising of personnel – the previous level of capabilities will erode.  Cash strapped communities will be forced to curtail special teams designed to deter or respond to acts of terrorism and other emergencies. 

Why did they choose to cut such an important program?
House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Chairman Robert Aderholt gave a statement which included:

“However, programs that have been underperforming and failing to execute their budgets or measure their results are significantly reduced.”

“In short, this bill puts the taxpayers’ precious, but limited dollars towards the security programs that will have an immediate impact upon our Nation’s safety and security and responsibility reduces spending wherever possible.”
Chairman Aderholt is referring to first responder grant programs. The majority of the House bill’s reductions come from state and local first responder grant programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security cited the inefficiency of these grant programs and their inability to demonstrate measurable return on tax payer investments.

Some in Congress have long complained that these state and local grants are inefficient and have been slow to draw down funding.  And there is also concern that there has not been any effective measurement of how the grant funding has helped improve the state of preparedness. This is not surprising as the grant program was rolled out with lose guidance and no performance measurements.  Efforts to develop capability assessments were tried and then shelved. No one has yet found a good way to measure how the investments in first responder capabilities are paying dividends.

Many grantees will admit that they have trouble explaining how much the money helps then, and that they have a backlog.  These grantees are overwhelmed with the workload associated with applying for and spending and then accounting for the grant spending.  They are dealing with a tangle of red tape, audits on top of audits, and difficult grant reporting processes.  Very few have had the time to take the initiative to develop performance measures.  And, many thought that was FEMA’s job to come up with performance measures.
Just this year, as a sign of frustration, Congress commissioned a study. They asked the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to assist FEMA by with studying, developing, and implementing a plan for promptly developing a set of quantifiable performance measures and metrics to assess the effectiveness of the programs under which covered grants are awarded.
Why is it so hard?
The process of requesting and spending grant dollars can take years due to red tape and procurement processes at the federal, state and local level.  Without getting into the details, suffice it to say that it often takes over a year just to get authorization to spend a grant award. This is regrettable, but it is not a sign that the money is not needed.  These grant dollars are being used to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack and to position local first responders to be better prepared to respond to and recovery from terrorist acts.  

These improvements in planning, organization, equipment, training and exercises are making the nation better prepared overall. These improvements have been making a positive impact on our nation’s ability to respond to all sorts of disasters and emergencies, events that are occurring more and more frequently. Unfortunately, the grantees have been unable to tell their story; and, the lack a common and effective voice to help explain this to congress.

Where will this end up?
No one can say how the legislative process will turn out.  The subject bill needs to wind its way through Congress and then to the President. A lot can happen in that process.  There may be compromises and trade-offs.

The House is actually recommending an increase to post-disaster aid funding.  This is probably needed given the recent increase in disasters.  However, reducing investment in protection, preparedness, and response and recovery projects is being seen by many first responders as being short sighted and defeatist. 

Why, when “all disasters are local”, is it that other national homeland security and domestic programs are not being hit as hard as first responder programs? 

Is it “penny-wise but pound-foolish?”  Yes, Congress is risking having to pay more (in human and economic impact) when disasters happen...

Are first responders caught in the middle?  Of course they are…

Opinions expressed here are my own and no others.


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