Federal homeland security grants that help states prepare to manage large-scale disasters are facing further cuts. The size of the cuts won't be known until Congress passes the $69 billion 2009 Homeland Security budget.
From a high of $33 million in 2004, Oregon's state homeland security grant funding has dropped to $8.9 million in 2008.
"Congress has continually whittled away at the state programs," said Matt Marheine, who coordinates the disaster preparedness program for the State of Oregon. "When you do that you start losing capability. I think we're making a difference, it's just not as great of a difference as we need to make."
The Department of Homeland Security has warned it also may introduce a matching funds requirement that would require states to match up to 25 percent of the grant money they receive.
"I can tell you that a match requirement would be absolutely devastating for the state," Marheine said. "There aren't many states with extra money in their general funds."
Economists predict that the current economic downturn will reduce state revenues for the coming year, leaving legislators across the country looking for ways to cut state spending.
Marheine said state and local budgets are now fixed and contain no slack to add matching funds. "Most jurisdictions pass their budgets in July, so if a grant opportunity that requires a match comes through in October, there will be no money in that budget for a match."
The grants are designed to help state and local agencies prepare to manage large-scale disasters, such as earthquakes, epidemics and terrorist attacks. Funds pay for federal emergency management training, equipment for firefighters, police and other emergency personnel, coordination between agencies, and training exercises to test how well the system works. States Want More Flexibility. Complaints about the elimination of the law enforcement terrorism prevention grants program also surfaced in a national survey of state emergency preparedness directors by "Homeland Security Today," a national security newsletter. State directors, many of whom requested anonymity, said the rules should be more flexible. Currently states cannot keep more than 20 percent of the funding for statewide projects or spend more than 3 percent on administration.
"The reduced overhead cap of 3 percent on grant administration is untenable," one of the anonymous directors told the newsletter. "DHS should bring overhead allowance into compliance with norms. This should be at least 10 percent for some programs and as high as 25 percent [for others]."
Directors in rural states questioned the strategy of concentrating funds in urban centers, arguing that farm states need funding to protect food supplies and food transportation systems.
This year's state grants must cover additional programs. States are now required to direct 25 percent of the homeland security grants to programs on law enforcement terrorism prevention -- programs that were separately funded with additional money before they were unexpectedly eliminated this year.
Grant requests in Oregon run at around $100 million – far exceeding the program's capacity. The most common need across the state is communications equipment that allows law enforcement and first responders to talk to one another. "We have first responders in some counties who can barely communicate with one another day to day," Marheine said. "It doesn't seem to get through that the structure of responders and emergency structures is strained almost to breaking point."
Cities Receive More Funds Than States
The Portland metro region, which includes Washington, Clackamas, Columbia and Clark counties, is better funded than the rest of the state, because it is eligible for funding through the Urban Area Security Initiative program. This year the five-county Portland/Vancouver metro area was awarded $7.5 million through the UASI program. Portland also received $641,000 as its share of the state grants program.
"The trend is to give priority to the high density, high population areas, by pushing the funding toward the UASI program and away from the state program," said Michael Paddock, CEO of the Grants Office LLC in Rochester, New York. "That's true not just with this program, but also with the hospital preparedness program."
The consulting firm tracks all 12 federal appropriations bills and 26 out of several hundred federal grant-making programs, so it can advise states, cities and regions on how to find the right grants to fund their disaster preparedness programs. The Justice department, for example, offers grants that can be used for communications equipment. "Navigating the grants can be a little difficult," Paddock said. "When urban areas are getting more, municipalities outside those areas have to get very creative. They have to cobble together funding from a wide variety of sources."
Marheine said restrictions on how the grants are spent combined with inconsistent reporting and application requirements cause hardship for small towns and counties.
"DHS has thousands of people working on all kinds of different programs," he said. "They've crafted different timelines, application requirements, reporting requirements: everything you can think of is different for different programs," he said. "So you have all of those things falling on the shoulders of one individual and in a lot of cases it's half a person. This is going to a population of responders that are beyond overwhelmed. This is a national problem."