Federal anti-terror funds dwindle

In 2010 the Atlanta area received $13.5 million and Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency got $19.2 million from the federal Department of Homeland Security in grants to beef up emergency preparation and response. By last year, Atlanta’s grant was down to $5.2 million and the state received $4.9 million, amid federal belt-tightening.

“We cut back to maintaining the status quo,” said Ralph Reichert, director of the homeland security division of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “We weren’t able to build any programs that we were able to do in the previous year.”

In previous years the influx of federal dollars paid for new fingerprinting machines, specialized robots and bomb-sniffing dogs. Last year, it went mostly toward maintenance of those things.

Grant funding has increased slightly overall this year, though the grants to individual states and urban areas have not been handed out yet. Across-the-board spending cuts known in Washington as “sequestration” have put strain on nearly every federal program, and the security grants face an uncertain future as the Obama administration wants to consolidate several programs. Congress has resisted this push in the past.

“These urban grants are important because these terrorists look for huge populated targets, events that are going on in major cities,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat. “The last thing that we need to be doing now is cutting these urban grants.”

After the president submitted a budget request last week that would have eliminated the program to merge it with other grants, Scott signed on to a letter circulated by fellow House Democrats requesting the Urban Area Security Initiative funding be restored to its 2010 level.

The grant programs were created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as a way to enhance the capabilities of local law enforcement to prevent and respond to terrorism. They fund new equipment, specialized training and ways for law enforcement agencies to collaborate.

In Georgia the grants have helped pay for the state’s “fusion center,” which coordinates information and resources across the state’s public safety agencies to better respond to criminal and terror threats.

But the grants also have come under scrutiny. A 2012 internal audit by the Department of Homeland Security found shortcomings in how GEMA oversaw the grant process, including not establishing measurable goals for its projects.

As the program budgets have fallen in recent years, DHS has eliminated the grants to many smaller cities and shaved others — including Atlanta and Boston.

“The cuts over the last couple of years have been pretty substantial, but this is an era of tougher budgets,” said Stewart Verdery, former Department of Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration and now a lobbyist for Monument Policy Group, in an interview with the AJC and Channel 2 Action News.

“And so people have said, look, we can’t continue the same level, hopefully we’ve given people a good amount of money over 10 years and that money has built capabilities that don’t just vanish on the next day. But there definitely have been cutbacks that I’m sure are painful on the ground.”

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