One of the fastest-growing sectors of government spending in New York is Homeland Security, where federal spending has ballooned in the past half-decade from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Since 2007, New York State’s share of federal funding for homeland security has increased by more than
630 percent, from $57 million to $426 million in the last fiscal year. That spending has gone largely to grants to increase the ability of local governments to communicate with one another in the event of a terror attack.
But in recent months the grants system, which has never undergone a department-wide audit, has come under fire for a lack of oversight, and left Congress wondering if the money is working.
Florida Congressman Gus Bilirakis has been convening a series of Homeland Security subcommittee hearings to look at whether the grants are effective. So far the hearings have centered on a problem fundamental to the department’s existence, namely the fact that the federal government doesn’t have a way to measure if the grants are working or not.
As Center for American Progress fellow Scott Lilly testified during one recent hearings, “I have watched [the Department of Homeland Security] struggle for more than eight years now. I must say that I have never witnessed greater chaos in government than in the early years of this department.”
A DHS inspector general audited New York’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services in 2011, and found that although the state had a well-functioning grants system, New York “could not demonstrate specific improvement and accomplishments” in making the state better prepared for an emergency.
The state therefore had no basis to determine whether the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants going out the door to fund emergency preparedness were in fact doing anything to increase New York’s emergency preparedness.
The largest increase in spending over the past five years has gone to two grants programs, called the Urban Areas Security Initiative and the UASI Nonprofit Security Grant Program. These grants have been awarded in the highest amounts to New York and Washington, D.C. But in the past two years, as the country faced the global economic meltdown, spending on the program overall has been pared back, except in New York.
“I can tell you from being on the Homeland Security committee and the Intelligence committee, I’m the only member of Congress who’s on both committees, and every analysis I’ve seen, this region is the number one terror target in the entire country,” said Republican Rep. Pete King. “It’s not even close. If there’s a listing of the top 20, top 30 cities. The difference between New York and the second region, in terms of terror risk, whatever that difference happens to be, that’s greater than the difference between the second region and the 20th.”
The nonprofit and urban-area security grants are awarded based on a risk assessment that until this year was calculated in ways not available to the public or standardized, in part because of security risks, lawmakers said.
“It’s not an exact science. Things aren’t scored on a rubric,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, the ranking member of the House Committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
For example, a grantee can apply for $75,000 to put a new security camera and other equipment into its facilities, based on a self-reported likelihood that the organization, a yeshiva or a community center, might be a potential terror target. The only safeguard against fraud built into the grant system is the requirement that grantees file a progress report outlining how they spent their funds, but a recent federal audit found multiple grantees kept poor or nonexistent records.
New York State’s response to the audit outlined the larger problem. It wasn’t that New York wasn’t complying with federally accepted standards for measuring how much safer the grants funds were making New Yorkers—it was that the entire Department of Homeland Security lacks a system that measures whether or not the grants even work.
The system, lawmakers said, has led to a preventative system of funding that seems difficult to assail. For example, a nonprofit organization in New York that wants security grant funding does not have to be threatened by a terrorist group in order to receive funding—it just has to demonstrate its symbolic value or proximity to other potential terror targets. This has led to the federal government spending money on security grants for nonprofit groups like the Step by Step Infant Development Center in Borough Park, beefing up security at what is essentially a day-care center.
In New York City, where state and local officials have successfully foiled 14 terror plots, millions of dollars in federal grants funding are the backdrop to an ongoing discussion of the city’s failed emergency-communications project, an updated 911 dispatch system that is several years and more than $1 billion over budget, and that is supposed to increase emergency coordination between first responders. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been ordered by a federal judge to release a report critical of the program, which he has so far refused to do.
Federal regulators worry lax oversight could ultimately hurt New York’s security projects, in the event funding for homeland security is cut back.
For example, the New York City Fire Department used federal homeland-security money on a $5.5 million contract that depended on the availability of future money from the federal government, according to a Homeland Security IG report. If federal funding were not available, the city would have to bear the cost of the contract.
But the state’s outsize spending on homeland security has also created something of a permanent economy around homeland security that federal officials worry is an unstable source of permanent funding.
Since Sept. 11 more than 100 colleges and universities around the country have developed master’s programs, majors or certificates allowing students to specialize in homeland security. This year alone, the Department of Homeland Security expects to hire more than 50,000 new employees, making it the second-largest government employer nationally outside of healthcare.
“Ten years after September 11 we threw a lot of money at the whole security problem for fear that if we didn’t, something may slip by,” Higgins acknowledged.
“For a free nation, we spend a lot of money on security. We need to be spending more money on infrastructure, on education, on research. So, yes, there’s a scientific industrial complex that’s grown up around 9/11, but the concern that local communities have is finding that balance,” he said.
Last year the federal government tried to scale back spending on homeland-security grants. In New York plans were made to restrict grants funding to New York City, Westchester and Long Island, in response to concerns that the state’s level of spending on homeland security had become unsustainable.
To John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State who has authored several studies on domestic homeland-security spending, the spending drawdown is necessary, at least until the department can produce some risk analysis to justify the funding.
“We calculated that the increase in spending for domestic security has gone up by a cumulative total of about a trillion dollars since September 11, but no one is really looking at whether the risk is enough to justify the expenditures,” Mueller said.
He cited a National Academy of Sciences study ordered by Congress two years ago that analyzed DHS risk-assessment methods.
“They essentially don’t know what they’re doing on terror,” Mueller said, adding, “The way they put it in the report was, ‘We couldn’t find any studies that could justify any decision the department has ever made.’ ”
Higgins acknowledged the country needs to find efficiencies in DHS, but argues his district is still at risk of terror attack and shouldn’t be arbitrarily cut off from funding.
“Nothing has happened where Homeland Security comes in and says, ‘Well, you know what, five years ago you were a potential target for terrorist attack, and now you aren’t anymore, so you’re off the list.’ That doesn’t happen,” he said.
He was ultimately successful in getting grants funding for Buffalo reinstated, but admitted that it was difficult to measure how well the money was working to thwart attacks.
“Without question,” Higgins said, “you’ll never get credit for what didn’t happen.”
To read more about homeland security, visit www.cityandstateny.com.
Tags: Anne Richards, audit, Brian Higgins, City and State, Committee on Homeland Security, Congress, Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, grants, Gus Billirakis, Homeland Security, House of Representatives, Laura Nahmias, New York, Pete King
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