Security funds roll in ... but so do headaches

Thursday, September 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:29 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, states and cities are settling into a new annual tradition: going cap-in-hand to federal agencies for homeland security dollars.

But all beggars aren’t equal, and debate is still raging in Washington when it comes to distributing the millions. Big-city representatives demand a “threat-based” calculation that would send more money to cities such as New York and St. Louis, citing high-profile targets such as the Empire State Building and the Arch. Those from rural areas argue that other factors, such as agricultural safety and power plants, should also figure prominently in the distribution formula.

Local emergency leaders say they know Columbia isn’t a likely terrorist target. After all, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond’s office declared in August that 80 percent of a new $19 million Missouri award would go to St. Louis and Kansas City.

Still, the money keeps flowing into local coffers. And agencies in mid-Missouri are charged with spending the dollars on equipment and personnel to prepare for disaster. The city of Columbia and Boone County combined have been approved for about $700,000 in emergency management money since Sept. 11, and an additional $240,000 has been awarded to the Columbia/Boone County Health Department.

The issue of coordination underscores homeland-funding efforts across counties and city departments. City leaders have coordinated who will order which pieces of equipment. A new health department epidemiologist coordinates efforts to spot diseases across six counties.

All that coordination can be pretty confusing, said James McNabb, administrator of emergency communication for Columbia and Boone County. McNabb heads two local departments — the Office of Emergency Management and the Office of Public Safety Joint Communications. So the stacks of paperwork that accompany emergency-preparedness grants come across his desk.

“It’s been a headache,” McNabb said. “At times, it’s been a nightmare.”

Despite the frustrations, McNabb said local first responders and agencies have shared the money well.

“Initially, there seemed to be some competitiveness for the funding,” McNabb said. “But it eventually worked out fine, with the most fair and equitable way to distribute it being population.”

Only for terror?

The important thing to consider with homeland-security funding is to ensure the money doesn’t go to waste, said Capt. Sam Hargadine of the Columbia Police Department.

“A lot of that equipment is just going to be sitting on the shelf for the next 20 years — I hope,” Hargadine said. “I hope we don’t have to use it. A lot of it is multipurpose equipment, but we don’t carry oxygen bottles or radiation suits in the trunk of patrol cars.”

Ken Hines is assistant chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, which is the headquarters for Missouri Task Force One. That group spent days sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks, and the fire district has been a leader in lobbying for additional spending on homeland security.

Hines said equipment purchased with homeland-security money — even the Vanguard Robot that specializes in helping with bomb-related emergencies — can also be used for disasters unrelated to terrorism.

“The equipment we use for a terrorist attack is the same as if a chemical truck explodes,” Hines said, adding that the newest preparedness technology was on hand for the vice president’s visit to Columbia in May.

But Hines said federal grants aren’t the county’s daily bread.

“We have not traditionally relied on grants to provide what we need,” Hines said. New items “enhance our capability to do what we do.” He noted that the idea of grants for preparedness dates back to the 1990s and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, said public health grants have allowed her department to “ratchet up our ability to respond to day-to-day things.”

Most of the health money has gone toward personnel, including the epidemiologist and a regional bioterrorism planner. The department also plans to hire a public information specialist and a temporary nurse to head the smallpox vaccine program in the coming year.

Detailed prescriptions for use

Federal grants come with specific instructions for how they can be used, a fact Hargadine said can detract from other local needs.

“It’s the same cash that used to come from the federal government; there’s just a lot more strings attached,” Hargadine said of security funding. “We used to get these through block grants so we could purchase any equipment we wanted to.”

McNabb agreed the specific nature of the programs can cause problems.

“The federal government’s answer to everything is to shove money at it, and that’s what they’ve done,” McNabb said. “You’re restricted by a shopping list that’s already been decided for you.”

That can mean funding to combat age-old safety problems is reduced in the face of new threats, Hargadine said.

“All of the threats we had prior to 9/11 — traffic, reducing car crashes … that’s still there,” Hargadine said. The homeland grants “don’t help the people that are dying out on the interstate out there,” he said.

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