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Feds cut preparedness grants

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A steep drop in federal homeland security grants and a new state system for passing the money on to local agencies has opened up a feud between the state and local emergency management officials, who are frustrated and bracing for a sudden loss of funds for projects.

Early this year, after being informed by the Department of Homeland Security that rather than divvying up grants by population, states would have to compete for the money, the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety put together a planning session in Southern Pines with local EMS, fire and law enforcement officials. The state eventually submitted a $207 million request covering dozens of projects, from better training to upgrades in communication gear. But DHS informed state officials in late May that North Carolina had aimed a little high and would see only about $20.3 million for local projects--less than one-tenth of the amount asked for and roughly half what the state got last year.

In the first week of August, disappointed state officials met with local EMS representatives to explain the shortfall and lay out a new procedure for distributing the federal money. Under the plan, the State Emergency Response Commission, an 18-member group of state officials and representatives from fire, law enforcement and EMS associations, would prioritize projects and decide how much money they'd get and who'd get it.

The move has been met with sharp criticism by emergency management officials. Last week, the North Carolina Emergency Management Association, the state's EMS professional organization, issued a position paper outlining its objections to the new system. Since 80 percent of the money is supposed to be passed through to local projects, the position paper says the new rules might not comply with federal law and describes the state's action as "an arbitrary and capricious absorption of funding with no local input."

Association President Randy Thompson, who is Brunswick County's EMS director, says he and many of his colleagues are worried that several multi-year projects will come to a standstill.

The problem with the new system, Thompson says, is that there is no mechanism for local agencies to appeal for funding. "There's no way for us to apply for it," he says.

The association wants the state to set up a system for local input. The total might be less than in years past, Thompson says, "but it's still [more than] $19 million."

State officials maintain that local agencies already weighed in on their priorities earlier this year when North Carolina's request was being compiled. Crime Control and Public Safety spokesperson Renee Hoffman says the reality is that projects will have to undergo more scrutiny. The objections being raised, she says, are the result of a small group of local agencies losing money they were used to receiving.

Hoffman says the reliability and predictability of federal homeland security money has been a concern since DHS was formed. At first, with no real system in place, DHS distributed money based on population. Criticized for shortchanging high-risk areas, this year DHS switched to a priority-based system and, with that, open competition among the states for funds. The new guidelines are weighted more toward preparing for and preventing acts of terrorism than natural disasters--though some improvements, like better communications systems, can aid both efforts.

But the upshot of the change is that North Carolina, not viewed as having a high risk of terrorist attack, is going to have to struggle to improve its share of DHS money in the future.

"We may not have a terrorist attack, and I hope we don't," Hoffman says. "But we darn sure are going to get a hurricane."

Both state and local officials agree on one thing--DHS has been lousy at communicating upcoming changes in policy. This year, Hoffman says, states had about 60 days to submit their proposal along with a prioritized list of local projects--hard to do when you've got 100 counties to consult. Since this was the first year states had to compete for the money, how proposals would be judged and prioritized by the feds was a huge question mark.

DHS did offer help in the form a handy, acronym-filled guide. It opens with the National Preparedness Goal, an amazing piece of Beltway committee work. In case you haven't memorized it, the NPG goes like this: "To achieve and sustain risk-based target levels of capability to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from major events, and to minimize their impact on lives, property, and the economy, through systematic and prioritized efforts by Federal, State, local and Tribal entities, their private and non-governmental partners, and the general public."

Don't you feel safer already?

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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