Fairfield County snubbed by feds for homeland security funding
Published 1:25 pm, Monday, May 30, 2011
Despite being home to the Times Square car bomber and scores of Sept. 11 victims, Fairfield County emerged as a loser in the latest round of homeland security funding, a snub that is being blasted by regional leaders.
The region recently learned it will no longer qualify for the Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program, which public safety officials say amounts to a $5 million hit spread over 2011 and 2012.
Cities and towns in the region planned to use the funds -- administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- to complete work on a radio and computer network that will allow law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders at the local and state level to communicate over the same network.
To date, $10 million has been committed by the feds toward building the backbone of the network in the region, which comprises Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport, Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Easton, Weston, Westport, Fairfield, Monroe, Trumbull and Stratford.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the failed Times Square car-bombing by Shahzad, a Pakistani-American with known terrorist ties who was living in Bridgeport and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole.
Finch's criticism also coincides with last week's raid of an alleged bomb-making workshop run out of the Bridgeport condo of Nicholas Lahines, a former Greenwich resident who was arrested by federal agents.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security representative said the agency is having to re-prioritize where funding is most needed because of budget cuts.
"In 2011, Congress cut DHS state and local preparedness grants by $780 million compared to the 2010 (fiscal year) enacted level, nearly a quarter of DHS grant funding," said spokesman Chris Ortman. "The highest-risk cities in our country continue to face the most significant threats, and, consistent with recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the (fiscal year) 2011 homeland security grants focus the limited resources that were appropriated to mitigating and responding to these evolving threats."
Steve Davis, a Maryland-based emergency management consultant who specializes in the urban grants, said Bridgeport and Hartford were among 31 cities removed from the list of recipients for the upcoming fiscal year.
The top 10 most populous cities were kept whole, according to Davis, who said the medium-sized cities remaining on the list got cut by 30 percent.
"The hand-writing is on the wall for it to be even more severe than it was this year," Davis said of future funding for the grant program.
Between the Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program and the State Homeland Security grant program, the feds say Connecticut has $54.6 million available from the years 2006 to 2010 it can draw down.
The state is also expected to receive another $12 million in non-Urban Areas Security Initiative funding in the upcoming 2011 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
That is of little consolation to public safety officials who say they were counting on the grants to finish work on the communications network, however.
"It could be the ultimate game-changer in homeland security and emergency management in the state of Connecticut, and not for the better either," said Daniel Warzoha, Greenwich emergency management director.
The uproar over the cuts is quickly becoming a political football, with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy co-signing a protest letter Monday with nine other fellow Democratic governors to leaders of the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee.
"With the ten-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaching, we write to express our alarm over potentially drastic cuts to state and local homeland security grants..." the governors wrote. "We urge you to reverse this course and restore the critical funds that enable state and local governments to protect our homeland and keep our communities safe."
In Stamford, where Malloy served as mayor from 1995 to 2009, city officials said they were blind-sided by the cuts.
"Here's the thing that bothers me: we are the second biggest commuter station outside of Grand Central," said Chris Munger, a retired FBI agent who is the city's emergency management consultant. "If anything happens in the city, we're going to get the brunt of it."
Munger warned the cuts will severely hamper efforts to improve communications between the municipalities in the region.
"We have the communication system in Stamford, but it's not good to us if the rest of the county doesn't have it," Munger said of the 700 MHz network.
Public safety officials said they will look to alternative sources of funding to complete the communications network, a vulnerability exposed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"One of the biggest problems on 9/11 was communication," said Davis, the emergency management consultant from Maryland. "Since then, communication has been a priority. It's to make sure police and firefighters and others can talk during the incident."
The state's homeland security agency reported it is busy developing a contingency plan in the wake of the cuts.
"We are presently still analyzing the full impact of these cuts and will be meeting with all of our local, state and federal partners to discuss how to effectively manage these cuts moving forward," said Scott DeVico, an agency spokesman. "The full impact of some of these cuts are not immediate because most of these grants run on a three-year grant cycle, but there will be potential impacts as we move forward."
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who represents most of Fairfield County and a sliver of New Haven County, said in a statement the cuts point to a much deeper problem.
"These reductions in critical homeland security and emergency preparedness highlight the impact of our nation's deteriorating fiscal situation on investment at every level of government," Himes said. "After seeing our local law enforcement officials help to capture the Times Square bomber last year, it's hard to imagine their work is not essential to protecting us from terrorism.
"If we are going to continue to fund the investments in public safety, education, infrastructure, and economic development we know are important, we need a comprehensive budget plan that reforms the tax code and entitlements while cutting waste throughout government."
Finch plans to send a letter of appeal to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"We can do more with less, but we can't do more with nothing," Finch said. "It doesn't seem logical to me since we've got so much invested in it. It looks to me like the end (of the project) is in sight."
The role cities and towns play in keeping the nation safe, Finch said, shouldn't be discounted.
"These aren't local concerns," Finch said. "These are national concerns that local towns have to deal with."
Staff writer Neil Vigdor can be reached at email@example.com or at 203-625-4436.