© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As anti-terrorism funding shrinks, controversy grows over how to spend it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When the Department of Homeland Security released a list in May of cities that qualified for the Urban Area Security Initiative program, Kansas City didn't make the cut -- even though it's been receiving funds since 2003.

This year, St. Louis was the only city in Missouri to receive part of the $662.6 million allocated toward preventing or responding to terrorism, and it will likely receive a smaller slice -- about $5.97 million -- than in the 2010 budget year.

"In today's tight fiscal environment, we are maximizing limited grant dollars by setting clear priorities and focusing on the areas that face the greatest risk," said Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement. "The FY 2011 homeland security grants are focused on mitigating and responding to the evolving threats we face."

The cuts have brought into sharper focus the debate over who most deserves the money, which is supposed to go for "unique planning, organization, equipment, training and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas."

Some say the money should go to big cities, such as New York and Chicago, where the risk of terrorist attack is greatest. These policy-makers argue that smaller cities, such as such as St. Louis and Kansas City, have a smaller chance of being attacked by terrorists. Others say that assumption is dangerous, pointing to reports about how Osama bin Laden was planning to target smaller cities before he was killed in May.

In both St. Louis and Kansas City, funds from the program have gone toward initiatives related to terrorism prevention. In the St. Louis area -- which has received nearly $75 million in UASI funds since 2003 -- UASI funds were used to develop a "fusion center" aimed at providing intelligence to appropriate law-enforcement agencies. It also launched an initiative to bring emergency preparedness specialists together to coordinate resources.

10 Years Later: Are We Safer?

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, are we safer from a terrorist attack? In a series of articles, funded by grants from the St. Louis Press Club and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Beacon will look at how money from the Department of Homeland Security was spent in Missouri. This project is being done in partnership with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Another fault line in the debate is what constitutes preparedness. A "fusion center" seems to fit the bill. But the program's initiatives have also been used to respond to weather-related events. The emergency preparedness program, for instance, was used when tornadoes hit the St. Louis area on the last day of 2010 and the middle of 2011. Is that a fair use?

Kansas City Gets Cut

With less money for the UASI program, some policymakers want to shift UASI funds away from smaller and mid-sized cities and move them to bigger ones. It's a move that's pleased lawmakers representing larger cities and infuriated others from smaller jurisdictions

When money for Kansas City was cut, numerous federal lawmakers from Missouri, including U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, protested. Cleaver said the move marked "a terrible time to withdraw support for our ability to train and equip police, firefighters and other first responders and otherwise maintain the highest level of security."

But not everybody was outraged. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, noted in a statement that while some "lower-risk cities" saw complete elimination of their funding, "the most critical of the grant programs for New York, the NYC area's allocation, remains unchanged."

King advocates shifting resources to bigger cities. In an interview with Politico in May, King said homeland security funds need to "go where the risk is."

"It's time for the administration and the congressional leadership to stand up and say, 'This just can't be a Christmas tree,'" King told Politico reporter Mike Allen. "This money has to go to the areas where it's needed the most."

Eligible cities are divided into two tiers. The first tier -- which received the lion's share of $540.6 million in the 2011 budget -- includes cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The second tier -- which received the remaining $121.9 million -- includes cities such as St. Louis, Atlanta and Orlando.

The program was cut by $162 million from 2010 to 2011, a move that sharply reduced the number of eligible second-tier cities. In addition to Kansas City, cities such as Tucson, Sacramento and New Orleans did not receive UASI funding.

Moreover, the cuts didn't actually add any additional funds to the first-tier cities. Those allocations stayed flat, while some second-tier cities that made the cut -- such as St. Louis -- received less money. In the 2011 budget year, St. Louis is eligible to receive around $5.9 million. That number is down from 2010, when St. Louis was eligible for $8.5 million worth of grants.

'Definitely Reduced'

In the St. Louis area, the UASI grants are administered by the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, a component of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. Inside STARRS are numerous committees dealing with interoperable communications, first responders, public health and hospital preparedness.

John Whitaker, a public safety administrator at East-West Gateway, said the less money will result in fewer projects. Some of those projects could be one-time expenditures, such as purchasing equipment. Others are broader, ongoing proposals such as planning for what hospitals or public health entities should do in the case of an emergency.

"So in that way, our ability to help the responders and the community in that way is definitely reduced," Whitaker said. "It's hard to put a value or amount of readiness reduction number on that."

Whitaker said UASI funds have gone toward:

  • Creating a terrorism early-warning group. The group works with other centers across the country to identify threats and provide information for the FBI and other agencies.
  • Providing urban search and rescue teams with response vehicles and equipment. Those tools can be used not only for a hypothetical terrorist attack, but also natural disasters such as an earthquake.
  • Stationing medical equipment at hospitals and public-health entities. Those entities can be used in the event of a major event, such as a pandemic flu.
  • Forming an operations center to coordinate emergency preparedness specialists during a major event. Whitaker said that's been used several times, including the New Year's Eve tornado in Sunset Hills and a Good Friday tornado that ripped across north St. Louis County.

The situation may be even direr in Kansas City, said Erin Lynch, who serves as the director of emergency services and homeland security for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City. The Kansas City area has received about $71.4 million for the program since 2003.

"The reality is that we have invested in regional capabilities and systems and program over the last eight years that will not be able to continue once we have fully expended the 2010 funds, which are for 36 months," Lynch said.

Affected by the decision, Lynch said, are efforts to create a communications system for local police officers, firefighters and EMS officials. She added the funds have also been used to enhance the region's ability to deal with hazardous materials, to bolster technical rescue efforts and to prepare shelters and medical facilities for catastrophic events.

"These are all monumental tasks," Lynch said. "We've been able to make incremental progress. And over time, that readiness we've achieved is going to be diminished."

Necessary Allocation?

One expert in Homeland Security preparedness said the tug of war between larger urban areas and smaller cities is not new.

Scott Somers, a member of the preparedness, response and resilience task force at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the debate has often focused on whether funding should be "concentrated on larger cities that have a greater risk or should be spread out and be more needs-based."

Somers also said that some equipment purchased with UASI funds can have dual purposes. A bomb robot, he said, can be used if there are dangerous explosives in a barn.

"We have to remember that the tools that we use in terrorism response -- building collapse, chemical releases, bomb threats and response -- those tools can also be used for other things," Somers said. "Chemical detection equipment is used by hazmat teams all the time, whether it's an accidental release or a terrorism incident. It's not surprising that this equipment is being used for other purposes. But the specific focus is to purchase equipment that is going to be needed for terrorism prevention and response."

Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow at the Libertarian-leaning CATO Institute,questioned whether the entire program was needed. He said many Homeland Security grants have morphed into a perpetual subsidy for local emergency services.

"If I had my druthers, the federal government wouldn't pay for fire departments and police in local communities," Friedman said. "It seems to me this was undertaken as an emergency measure after 9/11. And it wasn't the idea that it would last forever."

Friedman also said the actual risk of terrorism is minuscule -- even in middle-sized cities.

"It's not that it's impossible, but the utility of spending a little bit more money for first responders is basically really small," Friedman said. "And basically other stuff you could be spending money on has more utility."

Lynch said that local governments are already strapped when it comes to budgeting. And she added there is a federal component to protecting cities and responding to major incidents.

"Local budgets are incredibly limited to begin with. And part of the Homeland Security mission is being prepared for those very large events," Lynch said. "And so our capacity from 10 years ago to today and our expectations of the public have really shifted following 9/11. And we've focused hard in the Kansas City area on having enhanced capability to respond to an explosive incident or a chemical incident."

She also said there are risks throughout the country, referring to an Associated Press report about how documents gathered from Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound unveiled aspirations to attack smaller cities.

"And it's all about how you allocate limited resources," Lynch said. "I think there's concern from the death of Osama Bin Laden and some of what they were saying for the mid-sized cities not only the large cities. I also think that effectiveness in how the dollars are being invested is a really important factor. It all depends on what perspective you're coming at and what your concerns are."

And Somers added that an attack on a smaller city can do damage far beyond its borders.

"One example is when you look at the Eastern seaboard, there are a lot of smaller cities that play an important role in electricity infrastructure," Somers said. "So if you knock out a few small cities' electricity infrastructure that can bring down the eastern seaborne. Look at the latest blackouts with snow and ice -- you can do that with a terrorist event too."

Lawmakers Sound Off

Congress is debating legislation dictating how resources will be allocated for UASI and other Homeland Security programs in next year's budget. But some lawmakers from Missouri are rejecting the idea that the money should go solely to the largest cities.

"As I've said for some time, the administration's new approach will greatly disadvantage cities like Kansas City and St. Louis," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in a statement. "We will continue working to call attention to this problem to ensure Missouri's urban areas receive the funding they need to prevent becoming a target."

Sam Drzymala, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said the decrease in funding will "make it really difficult to respond to disasters and to security threats." He noted that Carnahan voted for an amendment earlier this month to the 2012 Homeland Security bill that would not limit UASI funds to the largest cities. An effort to boost funding to the program failed.

Laura Myron, a spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the UASI grants "are important for protecting Missouri and the homeland."

"There are going to be some tough decisions ahead about cuts that need to be made, but Claire will work to protect this important funding," Myron said.

Still, at least one lawmaker from Missouri seems to share King's view. In a statement, U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield - who serves on the Homeland Security Committee -- said "that to make the most out of our tax dollars we need to allow the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to target grants to where they are needed most."

"Cities like St. Louis are able to apply for these grants and by focusing on high-risk and high-threat areas we are more likely to stop terrorist threats before they begin while also safeguarding the taxpayer's money," Long said.

Lance Trover, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said the freshman lawmaker "believes we must confront terrorist threats to our country head-on and supports the idea of allocating security funds to communities based on where the highest threat levels are located."

"The United States is facing a severe budget crisis and we must make tough decisions when it comes to spending tax dollars and focus our security dollars on areas which are heightened targets," Trover said.

Somers said a risk of a city getting attacked -- as opposed to a size -- is going to be a key factor in allocating UASI funds in the coming years.

"We're going to be having this debate for quite some time," Somers said. "I think we're going to be exploring ways to measure the efficiency and the effectiveness of the grant dollars that we are spending and trying to figure out how well they are addressing regional or national risks and how well those dollars are being spent."

Asked if UASI funding made St. Louis safer, Whitaker said the money made emergency management entities and agencies that operate under different disciplines "work more as a region." He also said the equipment and training obtained from the funds makes the region more prepared.

"We share information more and are able to respond to each other's needs, as well as collaborate if there's a big event that affects the whole region," Whitaker said. "While some of [the equipment] would only be used in a terrorist event [such as] a bomb containment truck that contains a nuclear device... We're definitely more prepared to respond to any event."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.