The 2010 appropriations bill for homeland security was stuffed with $2.7 billion worth of grants, and a list describing them on the department’s website would dizzy any taxpayer. Cash is available for urban area security, public transportation security, railroad security, port security, driver’s license security, regional catastrophic preparedness, buffer zone protection, communications devices, emergency operations centers and more.
Local governments are deeply protective of the money nine years after Sept. 11, particularly now that many of them are desperate to offset revenue decreases. Congress has awarded approximately $33 billion worth of readiness grants since 2001.
But according to Inspector General Richard Skinner, the federal government doesn’t always know if grant applicants who are denied funding for one purchase – from pricey incident-command vehicles to gas masks to intelligence fusion centers – are simply seeking the money under another program, most of which today are handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Since grant programs may have overlapping goals or activities, FEMA risks funding potentially duplicative or redundant projects,” Skinner ‘s report found adding later, “applicants may apply for multiple grant programs for the same items to maximize their chances to fully fund a project.”
The latest findings actually understate the issue. There is no central database the federal government can use to identify individual grant transactions or purchases, and to put together our exhaustive U.S. map of spending we had to approach each state with open-government requests seeking records that detailed expenditures.
Other departments like the Environmental Protection Agency offer homeland security grants to states for such things as protecting facilities that produce drinking water. But EPA officials “considered it embarrassing that federal partners may be allocating security funding to the same projects,” another report found last year.
Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas complained during an October hearing that FEMA still has no reliable tool to measure how much the grants have made communities safer, despite the extraordinarily large amount spent on them so far. FEMA in fact spent $15 million over three years on one web-based system that was supposed to evaluate the readiness capabilities of states, but that effort was ultimately abandoned because it didn’t produce meaningful results.
Skinner also says that Congress itself is to blame in part for directing the creation of grant programs that have similar goals, which makes it more difficult for FEMA to control waste and inefficiency. Further, pork-barrel spending by lawmakers may be worsening the problem. Members of Congress appropriate unregulated earmarks on behalf of their local constituents to finance investments in homeland security that grants are intended to fund. Earmarks also allow the recipients to avoid rules requiring that grants be distributed based on merit or competition.
“These earmarks limit FEMA’s ability to ensure federal assistance is being provided to fund grant recipients’ most urgent homeland security and emergency management needs and priorities,” Skinner wrote. His report recommended that FEMA better coordinate its application review process and work with Congress to streamline grant programs. FEMA officials responded that they were working on a department-wide system for managing grants that should mitigate some of the inefficiency.
Image: Golf cart purchased by Long Beach Fire Department in California with homeland security grants. Photo obtained from the California Emergency Management Agency.