It’s accepted wisdom that New York State gets shortchanged by federal homeland security funding programs—that the residents of such terror targets as Wyoming, the Dakotas, and yes, Montana, get more cash per capita than the Empire State.
“We all know high-need areas should get this money if it’s not going to be just pork,” Senator Chuck Schumer complained last year to former security czar Tom Ridge. Welcoming delegates to the Republican convention in September, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told them, “We all must recognize that homeland security funds should be allocated by threat and no other reason.” At campaign events, however, Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals accuse the mayor of failing to press his Republican allies in Washington hard enough for the security money the Big Apple deserves.
But some of the money New York City wants is being held up not in D.C. but in Albany. Last fiscal year, New York City was awarded $208 million under the federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). But the city only got $166 million off the bat, because all those funds first pass through the state government, which can take a 20 percent cut.
The state claims that much of its share eventually ends up protecting the city anyway. Local officials, however, aren’t sure where it all goes.
According to a recent letter from James McMahon, director of the state Office of Homeland Security, the state’s UASI share amounted to $42 million. About $3 million went back to the city. Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties received $2 million each, and Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, White Plains, and Yonkers were granted a combined $1.25 million. But all that adds up to only a quarter of the state’s share. In fiscal 2004, the state distributed all its share to New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, and the Port Authority.
Even when the state claims its money helps New York City, the impact is fuzzy. In fiscal 2003, the state Office of Homeland Security said it spent $6.25 million of its $25 million take on “State Police and National Guard Orange Alert costs associated with the protection of critical infrastructure in New York City and the adjacent urban area.” What those duties included, however, is something of a mystery to city officials.
At a City Council committee hearing last week, the city’s Office of Emergency Management commissioner, Joseph Bruno, said, “State assets are helpful to us in the event of a serious emergency.” But when asked what work the state police and National Guard were doing, he replied, “They came in during the Republican National Convention. I can’t recall another emergency they’ve come in for.” Some of the money might have been for drills, Bruno said, but the state’s drills tended to be outside the five boroughs. The money for the MTA and Port Authority—did Bruno know what that involved? “No, I don’t know what they are. But certainly anything they did to help the MTA, and particularly New York City Transit, it’d be helpful for the city.” Ask NYPD head Kelly about the MTA end, Bruno suggested. He’d know more.
“You would think so, but [Kelly] was in the dark also,” said Queens councilman and public safety committee chairman Peter Vallone Jr. “The people in charge of protecting us—who are doing a good job—are not fully aware of the projects that [the state does].”
Police spokesman Paul Browne diplomatically notes that the state’s spending “isn’t for me to document.” While it’s typical for the state to take a bite out of any federal grant to the city, Browne says, “our preference, obviously, is for as much as possible federal aid to come directly to the police in New York.”
The reason is simple: manpower. All those impressive-sounding anti-terror tactics the NYPD employs (with names like Cobra, Sampson, Archangel, Hammer, and Hercules) push up overtime costs. Kelly recently told the City Council that next year’s budget includes $260 million for overtime, but he predicted that actual costs would exceed that amount. “We’re mainly looking for the federal government to help us pay for the costs of diverting police to counter-terrorism duties. And obviously, the more that comes directly, the better.”
Complaints about homeland security funds going to Wyoming or Montana aside, New York State receives a lot of dough from the feds: $298 million this year, more overall than any other state—and more per person than all but eight states and Washington, D.C. The lion’s share of that largesse goes to the five boroughs, which makes sense given the unique threats the city faces. Congress is debating whether to change the formula for awarding homeland security grants, a move that could win even more cash for the city.
But when it comes to defending against terrorism, simply having more money isn’t everything. There’s strategy involved too, and that’s where questions have arisen of late. Plans for the Freedom Tower were recently and belatedly ordered changed to reduce vulnerability to truck bomb attack, and fire department brass have excoriated City Hall for putting the NYPD in charge of all emergency services in case of terrorist attacks. Forty-four months after 9-11, it looks as if the city is still scrambling.
In fact, “New York is actually way ahead of the curve,” says Walt Purdy, vice president of the Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center. “The things I have seen in New York, compared to other places—the gathering of intelligence, the bringing in of experts—it’s kind of like a Who’s Who in the counter-terrorism world. The public doesn’t see a lot of those things taking place.”
Some of what the NYPD does, however, is made public. For example, the department offers a laundry list of steps it takes during heightened alerts. It sends harbor units to protect ferries, deploys bomb experts, stations Hercules units (the guys with the body armor and big guns) throughout the city, and sends undercover teams into the subways, among other things.
But while those tactics could thwart a terrorist plot, none of them likely would have prevented 9-11. In reports since the WTC attack, it was the city’s response after the planes hit that drew praise and criticism, and it’s there that new grants of money, whether from the feds or the state, could go.
It’s well-known that on 9-11, some of the biggest problems were with the fire department’s radios, such that some firefighters may not have heard the order to evacuate. Signals were too weak to reach as high as firefighters climbed. There was confusion over whether the repeater channel, used to boost those signals, was working. Too many firefighters were on one radio channel, and others were doomed because they were listening to another.
Since then, things have improved: The FDNY reprogrammed radios to provide more channels, and now battalion chiefs carry post radios that can boost signals inside high-rises. But there are still dead zones, says the union that represents FDNY lieutenants, captains, and chiefs. “We have coverage in many situations, and the goal is to have 100 percent coverage, and right now we do not have the infrastructure that will support 100 percent coverage,” says John Dunne of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “We could always use more funding.”
Some of that funding could come out of the state’s share of the federal urban security funds.
But Vallone tells the Voice, “What’s actually going on is none of [the state’s share] is being spent here. It’s hard enough to get our fair share from Washington. Now we’ve got to fight Albany.”