Homeland Security and Public Safety

10 Years After 9/11: How Far Did $635 Billion Spent on Homeland Security Go?

An examination of the last decade of homeland security funding and its future as government at all levels is being asked to do more with less.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has spent a reported $635.9 billion on homeland security. But as we pass the 10th anniversary of the attacks and wrestle with dire economic issues, homeland security funds are being constrained.

A look into homeland security funding since 9/11 raises almost as many questions as it answers. How is money apportioned? Are we spending enough — and how would we know? Are we, in fact, any safer?

These questions make homeland security funding a contentious issue in any economic climate, but especially the current one.

Running the Numbers

Norberto Colón doesn’t like the way the budget numbers are shaping up. If things go as expected, he said, emergency management in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is going to take a big hit.

Even now, the threat of budget cuts has frozen much of the county’s emergency planning work. “We’ve refocused on finishing programs that are already ongoing, as opposed to looking too far out in the future,” said Colón, the county’s deputy chief of staff for Public Safety and Justice Services. “Right now any long-term planning projects that require dollars or equipment are going to have to be placed on hold.”

For more coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, see these stories in our sister publications:

Government Technology — Ten years after 9/11, plans to build a national communications network for public safety agencies remain on the drawing board.

Governing — In America's largest Arab community, police are pioneering a new way to fight terrorism by strengthening neighborhood ties.

Photo: A view of the damage on Sept. 28, 2001. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA

Colón has good reason to be concerned. Cuts in 2011 to grants for states from the U.S. DHS and FEMA have taken a hit. Proposed cuts for 2012 could reduce funding by as much as another 50 percent.

One thing at least is certain: States and municipalities are being asked to do more with less. The 2011 homeland security budget includes a 21 percent cut in grants to the states. In May, the House approved a 2012 budget that would implement another 50 percent reduction in state grants.

Nominally those numbers come from Congress, working in consultation with the president. At least that’s true in so far as the overall DHS budget goes. When it comes to distributing that money among the states and among the high-risk areas that enjoy Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grants, however, the process is less clear.

State grants from the DHS begin with a $500,000 portion for each state and territory. Further grants are issued based on population: New York drew $91 million for 2011, California received $73 million and, lowest on the chart, the U.S. Virgin Islands with $1.16 million.

Distribution of UASI grants — which in 2011 lost $162 million from 2010’s $887 million figure — is by comparison somewhat more obscure. States assess their own risk; then the DHS runs the numbers through a complex risk-and-threat formula that it keeps secret. Security experts make a compelling argument for this opacity. It makes no sense, they say, to give terrorists an inside look at the thought process behind national risk assessment. Why red-flag potential vulnerabilities?

Still, concerns have been raised about the outcomes of this allocation process. Researchers at Northwestern University looked at UASI funding from 2005 to 2009 using their own risk assessment formula. In their estimation, New York and Chicago received too little, while California’s Los Angeles-Long Beach area received too much. They determined that New York City ought to have received an additional $15 million to $92 million in UASI funding in 2009.

The DHS doesn’t have to justify its outcomes; it has the advantage of a classified process. Members of Congress are not so lucky. When they sit down to tackle funding for homeland security, they do so in the public eye. As a result, specifics of homeland security spending have been largely off limits until the most recent budget cycles: No one wants to take the political risk of trimming “security.” The present fiscal crunch at the national level, however, and calls for federal belt-tightening, have put security on the table — likely to the chagrin of lawmakers.

“Security is always an issue that nobody in Washington wants to look bad on,” said Jena Baker McNeill, senior policy analyst for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. “They are always being told: Next time there is a terrorist attack, there will be blood on your hands.”

Congress’ willingness to step up to the plate comes at an especially bad time for the emergency management community. States overall find their coffers depleted by the ongoing recession. At the same time, planners at the state level have come to rely increasingly on support from Washington when it comes to matters of security.

“Even before the economy got bad, you could see that state and local governments were facing increases on their budgets. Seeing that the federal government was willing to take on more and more, they were perfectly willing to have that happen, so they routinely shortchanged their budgets,” McNeill said. “Why would they invest in preparedness if they really felt that the federal government will be here if things get really bad?”

Now states and locals have written that money out of their budgets, only to find their federal funds dwindling.

Still on the List?

The economic climate has been an impetus in recent security cutbacks. Not only has it placed tough choices before the states, it also has driven calls for greater fiscal responsibility at the federal level. Concerns about the debt, the deficit and overall economic well-being all have combined to bring new pressures to bear.

The net result will be more than just a paring back, however drastic, on state and regional spending. The greater worry for some is that the money will dry up altogether.

“The biggest concern is whether they limit the number of UASIs,” Colón said. “People have proposed going to just the top 10 areas, and obviously we wouldn’t make that list.”

In April, U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., introduced a bill that would limit the number of UASI recipients to not more than 25. There presently are 64 designated UASI municipalities in the United States — however, for fiscal 2011, 33 regions didn’t receive funding.

Others are feeling more confident about their place on the list, although the prospect of reductions still looms large for planners trying to make the tough choices of emergency management.

In the Portland, Ore., Office of Emergency Management, Interim Public Information Officer Dan Douthit said he takes comfort in the knowledge that his UASI continues to make the cut. Still, he’s living lean, with a 2011 grant that’s down by half from the year before. This comes after years of steady declines: In 2008-2009, Portland’s $7 million in funding already represented a sharp decline from prior years’ $10 million levels.

Some projects will go untouched. Equipment purchases, for instance, already have been funded for the coming year or two, and with that money already in the pipeline, those efforts will still go forward. Douthit is less certain about large-scale efforts like regional planning projects. These could be curtailed by the cuts, “but it still remains to be determined,” he said.

“We’ll have to prioritize even more closely the goals and objectives we want to achieve the most,” Douthit said. “It could mean we continue to pursue the same number of objectives, but in a smaller way.”

Where’s the ROI?

There’s every indication that the cuts feared by Douthit and other emergency managers nationwide could come to pass. In May, the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee approved a bill to fund the DHS for 2012 at a level down 2.6 percent from the prior year. That’s 6.8 percent less than the president’s proposal. That bill would reduce FEMA funding for state and local programs by 57 percent or $2.1 billion.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.