I’ve read far too many news stories in the last month, from newspapers around the country, with the same theme: why aren’t we getting more homeland security money from the feds? (Here’s the latest example of the genre.)
Given this, it’s great to see The Modesto Bee publishing a well-researched story this weekend that goes beyond this familiar whine and examines homeland security grant funding in six California counties since 9/11, looking both at how much they have received and what they’ve done with their money. The story paints a complex picture of the homeland security grant process, and highlights a range of viewpoints, including (paraphrased):
- “We’ve bought things we don’t need, but can’t afford to put more cops on the beat.”
- “We’re now communicating a lot better between agencies because of the grant process.”
- “We’re worried about the effects of a cut in our funding.”
- “Our biggest threat is floods, not natural disasters.”
My key takeaway from this cacophony of opinion is that any homeland security grant program is going to be naturally imperfect, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The alternative to the reality described in the article is either a top-down system where the federal government buys everything for the state and local governments, or a system where they’re left to fend for themselves. A middle course between these two extremes is going to be inefficient sometimes, leading to some wasteful purchases and local uncertainty, but it’s better than these other paths.
The article also makes a good point about the provisions for administrative costs in the grant programs:
Another gripe of local planners is homeland security’s 3 percent allowance for administrative costs. Gary Hinshaw, who heads emergency services for Stanislaus County, said administering the grants â€” from purchasing and ordering to distribution and keeping inventories â€” easily chews up more than 10 percent of the total funds awarded.
Yet, because the grants change from year to year, and because there is no guarantee how long homeland security funds will last, it’s difficult to justify hiring people to help administer the grants. Instead, Hinshaw said, what happens is the job falls into the hands of county purchasers and administrators already stretched thin by tight budgets. The situation is even harder on smaller counties like Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa.
DHS should work to try to give state and local governments multi-year guidance on grant funding, to overcome this administrative challenge. And at some point, it might make sense to move the funding for these grant programs out of the appropriations process and make them a fee-funded activity (similar to transportation funding.)