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High Risk Terror Targets, New York and New Jersey Fight for Homeland Security Dollars

By: Liza Porteus Viana

07/12/2011 ( 2:22pm)

Click here to read the article online. 

Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive homeland security budget, but the version that has passed the House has many lawmakers from New York and New Jersey already fighting for more money.

The House passed a $42.3 billion appropriations bill (H.R. 2017) on June 2, which includes $1.1 billion in cuts from the spending levels for the ongoing budget year that were agreed to this spring by House Republicans and President Obama.

The more high-profile cuts affect port and transit security grants, money for high-risk cities, and grants to help local fire departments pay for salaries and equipment purchases; the Republican-led chamber’s bill provides more than $2 billion less for those activities than what Obama requested. H.R. 2017 reduced funding for state and local homeland security grant programs by more than $1.5 billion from the current fiscal year, and merges funding for the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSP) and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), among others, into a single $1 billion fund.

In opposition to the cuts – which many Republicans argued were necessary to reduce inefficiency and wasteful spending – 147 House Republicans joined Democrats on the floor to restore $320 million for firefighter grants. House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-NY, warned that any more cuts in such security programs would amount to an “invitation to an attack.”

“As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, do we really want to cut our police departments, our counterterrorism units, our intelligence units?” King asked.

New Jersey senators railed against the cuts to transit security, which were 65 percent below the administration’s proposed 2012 budget.

“Al Qaeda remains determined to strike the US again,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. “Yet just weeks after reports that hand written notes from Osama bin Laden were found in his compound targeting our rails, the Tea Party Republicans in the House slashed funding for rail security. The Republican cuts to homeland security funding are reckless and dangerous for New Jersey, and I’m going to fight in the Senate to defeat them.”

Sen. Rush Holt, D-NJ, co-sponsored an amendment that would have reversed many of the cuts, but his proposal failed.

Firemen fuming over funding cuts

Fire companies across New York – particularly in upstate communities – are up in arms over a potential funding shortfall that could prevent them from buying new equipment, training new firefighters and retaining experiences firefighters. Local fire chiefs say those funds are vital to them keeping their station doors open and recruiting in the community.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, is protesting 17 percent cuts in Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) grants and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants. Since FY 2009, upstate New York departments have received more than $41 million in these grants. Schumer will push for more funding in the Senate version of the budget bill.

“When they put everything on the line and charge into a fire, they need to know that their equipment will perform, and that they have enough fellow firefighters with them to get the job done,” Schumer said. “Making sure that our fire departments have the tools they need to keep us safe is absolutely essential.”

“It would be devastating,” if such severe cuts were included in the final budget, Michael McManus, president of the New York State Professional Firefighters Association, which represents 104 local New York fire stations, told Homeland Security Today. “It would be very detrimental to all our departments.”

The SAFER grants in particular have been vital to replacing firefighters laid off as localities have had to cut budgets or have been lost due to attrition. Frustration has mounted in recent years as firehouses have felt the brunt of the recession as towns and cities have been forced to reduce costs. McManus’ group encourages local districts to apply for the grants to fill the financial gap.

“We’ve benefitted from the SAFER grant, which puts the firefighters in the jump seats, which is very critical for the firefighting tasks,” McManus said. It’s been “very instrumental to put firefighters back on the line or bring the numbers back where they should be … [towns are] counting on some sort of response and cutting it where they’re cutting it is not going to be very beneficial to the fire service.”

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-NY, also blasted the “cuts to critical homeland security grants,” including a 51 percent slash in FIRE Act grants, a 63 percent reduction in SAFER funding and a 20 percent cut in funding for New York State’s Homeland Security Grant Program.

HR 2107 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Appropriations for consideration, but no hearing date has yet been set.

More highlights from the House-passed bill that affect New York and New Jersey include:

* FY 2012 funding for an account that funds more than a half-dozen security programs, including those that protect intercity passenger rail, freight rail and mass transit, would fall to $113 million – a 45 percent reduction from the current funding levels – according to Holt’s office.

* $1 billion is to be distributed among: the State Homeland Security Grant Program, (more than $525 million was allotted for this program alone in FY 2011), UASI, Metropolitan Medical Response System, Citizen Corps Program, Public Transportation Security Assistance and Railroad Security Assistance, bus security assistance grants, port security grants, the Driver’s License Security Grants Program and the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program.

* The Buffalo-Niagara New York area, along Albany, Syracuse and Rochester, were cut from this year’s list of cities to receive funding from the UASI to ensure higher target cities like New York City receive sufficient funds. Buffalo-area Rep. Brian Higgins, D-NY, who noted that western New York includes four international bridges, the busiest passenger crossing at the northern border and was home to the Lackawanna Six terrorist cell, sponsored an amendment to restore funding to those cities; the amendment passed.

* $10 million more than Obama’s requested amount of $184 million for the Secure Communities digitized fingerprinting initiative, which uses biometric information and services to identify and remove criminal aliens in state prisons and local jails. The goal is to deploy the initiative to 96 percent of all jurisdictions in FY 2012 to identify an estimated 199,000 more criminal aliens that year than in FY 2010. Secure Communities is on track for nationwide deployment by FY 2013. In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended his state’s participation in the federal immigration plan.

* The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would get more than $5.2 billion total, and includes $10 million more than Obama’s request for air cargo security. Obama has requested $109 million to fund 12 more teams of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) units, for a total of 37 units. VIPR teams, operated by TSA, consist of personnel with expertise in inspection, behavior detection, security screening and law enforcement for random deployments throughout the transportation sector to deter potential terrorist acts. TSA conducted more than 8,000 VIPR operations in the past 12 months, including more than 3,700 operations in mass transit and passenger railroad venues.

* $30.3 million more than requested for the Coast Guard legacy cutters, maintenance and communications upgrades; Obama requested $1.4 billion total for Coast Guard acquisition, construction and improvements. The Coast Guard has a training center in Cape May, NJ, and its Staten Island, NY location is the busiest Coast Guard station in the country.

Liza Porteus Viana is a Homeland Security Today correspondent who covers technology policy, homeland security, crime, politics and the United Nations.