In the midst of last month’s manhunt to find the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, Massachusetts police received a tip about a trail of blood leading to a resident’s covered boat. To confirm somebody was under the tarp, police used a thermal imaging device attached to a helicopter. Earlier, a network of surveillance cameras helped police identify the two brothers allegedly behind the April attack.

Both technologies are examples of equipment acquired by local law enforcement through federal homeland security grants. But in the current political and economic climate, these grants have shrunk and city leaders say a reform proposal by President Obama would endanger the biggest anti-terror funding source for cities.

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Boston is the perfect example of how well these grants have paid off, according to Neil Bomberg, program director on human development and public safety at the National League of Cities.

“Many of the special hardware that the city of Cambridge had, that the city of Boston had, were the result of federal grants in aid,” Bomberg said. “Cities and towns worry about the long-term impact of budget cuts, whether it’s maintaining current supplies or buying new equipment, [even if] currently they’ve managed to function within the cuts that have already been made.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversees a handful of grant programs that pay for the prevention of and response to terrorist attacks in states and cities. Chief among them is the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), which distributed about $832 million in grants to metropolitan regions in 2010. By 2012, the amount had dropped to $490 million. The State Homeland Security Program, which sets aside 80 percent for local governments, experienced an even bigger decline in funding, from $842 million in 2010 to $294 million in 2012. Both programs began after the Sept. 11 attacks, along with smaller grant programs for public transit systems and ports.

The grants help city police departments cope with a new reality that goes beyond traditional crime fighting. “We rely on the federal funding for this relatively new phenomenon before 2001,” said Rich Stanek, president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association. Police needed new expertise and equipment for terrorist attacks. “It’s now 12 years post 9/11 and we’re in a much better position today in terms intelligence, police sharing and analysis.” The question is whether local law enforcement can preserve those gains without sustained financial support from the federal government, Stanek said. For instance, how will new officers be trained? What happens when biohazard suits need to be replaced?

The president’s budget calls for consolidating the various homeland security grant programs to eliminate redundancies and to direct increasingly scarce grant dollars where they would have the greatest impact. A similar proposal last year met with too much resistance in Congress and “there is no indication yet that Congress may be anxious to grab onto [consolidation],” Bomberg said. “In the [budget] climate that they’re in, however, this may become more appealing.”

Last December Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn questioned the value of the UASI grants in a oversight report. He complained UASI was supposed to function as a start-up investment, not ongoing support, and many of the cities most vocal about losing UASI grant funding “aren’t traditionally considered the targets of terrorists,” such as Toledo, Ohio and Riverside, Calif. Over time, UASI has become “an entitlement program for states, rather than a program that protect our cities from terrorists,” he asserted.

In a section of the report titled “The Politics of Risk,” Coburn described how state and local government groups pressured Homeland Security to expand the program and change its risk analysis. In 2011 a California public safety official admitted to intentionally inflating risk scores to receive more money. In the context of that kind of lobbying, the report cited efforts by the Massachusetts congressional delegation to win grants for the Boston metropolitan region -- which ranked 10th among urban grant recipients last year. Most of the report’s criticism, however, focuses on smaller urban areas such as Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Not only have the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities opposed cuts to UASI and related homeland security programs, but they’re against Obama’s consolidation proposal. City leaders say they want to preserve UASI as a standalone program because it works well and already targets the highest risk areas. Of the 31 cities to receive funding in 2012, 10 of them received 86 percent of the money, including New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston. 

Between 2010 and 2012, Boston relied on five federal grant programs to support local homeland security training, planning and equipment procurement. In 2010 those programs provided the city with $19 million, but by 2012 Boston received slightly less than $9 million, with all but $50,000 coming from UASI, according to a tally by the state’s Office of Safety and Security.

In the past 10 years, the federal government has given state and local governments more than $35 billion for planning, response and recovery efforts related to natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other events. As a result, there are now 78 information hubs -- officially called fusion centers -- that allow federal, state and local public safety agencies to collaborate effectively in situations similar to the Boston Marathon bombing. The money covers a range of uses, including training exercises for mass shootings and the replacement of first-responder radios. But as Coburn’s report points out, some of the projects that received funding have a less clear-cut role in combatting terrorism, such as snow cone machines and zombie simulations.

FY 2012 Urban Area Security Initiative Grants

Source: FY 2012 Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) Fact Sheet, Federal Emergency Management Agency