Unconnected Dots

State and local governments aren't being let in on the national homeland security strategy. That may be because there isn't one.
by | April 2004

In the awful first months following the 9/11 attacks, there was constant talk about a need to "connect the dots." When that buzz grew into an inescapable drone, a reluctant George W. Bush finally agreed in June 2002 to support a new federal Department of Homeland Security.

As many experts saw things, the dots that most needed connecting were the ones marking the nation's intelligence services. But now that the department has celebrated its first birthday, a different problem looms just as large. There is a fundamental disconnect between the federal homeland security efforts and those of state and local governments.

The lesson of 9/11 is that terrorist attacks start as local problems, requiring action by local first responders. When New York's fire fighters looked up at the blazing towers, it did not matter what had started the conflagration. The task was to save lives. The same was true in Oxford, Connecticut, where officials in the town of 9,000 had to cope with anthrax one month later.

If all politics is local, in other words, all homeland security is even more so. But a strong connection between the federal bureaucracy and local government has yet to be made.

In creating the new department, Congress and the president argued that the restructuring would beef up coordination and put more muscle into the policy. It would be easier to connect the dots and to direct money where it was most needed.

There has been some modest progress at the local level. Local planning and preparedness are far stronger than before 9/11. Coordination among local governments in devising response plans for possible threats is more robust, despite the always-tall barriers to such collaboration.

But big problems remain. Local officials complain that the nation's homeland security alert system has become a huge unfunded mandate. Every time the nation goes from yellow to orange alert, local officials have to increase their protection of key infrastructure and other sites prone to risk. The result, according to some estimates, is hundreds of millions of dollars a week added to already strained state and local budgets.

Meanwhile, local officials are scrambling to cover new technological needs. In many areas, the radios of first responders in neighboring communities do not operate on compatible frequencies. Purchasing new radios is expensive, and the mayors have complained that federal cash promised for this purpose has not arrived. "We would never think of sending the men and women of our armed forces into Afghanistan or Iraq with radios that can't talk to each other," says Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. He complains that the administration's plan to cut grants to state and local governments by $805 million in the fiscal year 2005 budget is evidence that the problem is getting worse.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported in January that in a survey of 215 major cities, 90 percent reported they had not received any funding from the biggest program for first responders. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge suggested that the reason $9 billion in grants remained unspent was that states had not yet distributed it to local governments. "Homeland security money went to the states by Federal Express, but came to the cities by Pony Express," cracked James A. Garner, mayor of Hempstead, New York, and president of the mayors' group.

The squabble masks a nest of more serious problems. It is impossible to link state and local efforts to the federal strategy because, so far, there isn't a coherent federal strategy. Without an overall plan in place, there is no way to channel scarce money to the local areas with the highest risk. As a result, Congress has turned homeland security grants into pork-barrel politics.

Moreover, the roles of the key players--state, local and regional governments--remain undefined. Local governments have big needs, but an even greater problem is building better coordination among the local first responders. That requires aggressive leadership by the states, but local mayors have fought off a strong state role.

To anyone who has followed the story of federal grants over the past generation, these quarrels echo the old battles over revenue sharing and block grant programs. But the threat of terrorism has injected new urgency into finding solutions.

More than two years after 9/11, there is no doubt that the nation is better prepared to prevent another attack and to deal with the consequences should one occur. But much of the promise of the new federal department, especially on intergovernmental issues, remains unmet. As Anne Khademian found in a recent Century Foundation report on the department's first year, "money continues to be spent without regard to a broad national strategy for preparedness or with much attentiveness to the particular needs of high-risk areas."

And that raises the toughest question of all: whether the urgency of homeland security can break down the traditional barriers of federalism that have frustrated policy coordination for so long. No other issue of intergovernmental relations is so hard and yet so important to answer.

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