State’s Homeland Security steadily losing funds
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Aug 23, 2012 | 5363 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Alabama established its own Homeland Security Department in 2003, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fresh news, people paid attention to color-coded threat levels and a federal official’s warning could still spark sales of duct tape.

In 2012, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security’s federal funding is less than one-tenth of what it was in 2003. State funding — $374,000 this year — is used mostly to meet the demands of the state’s immigration law, department officials say. The department has only 13 employees.

“It does present a challenge,” said Shirrell Roberts, deputy director of Homeland Security, of the funding decrease. “But we’re a strategic planning organization — our value is in looking statewide, and we can still do that.”

State-level homeland security departments sprang up across the country in the months and years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Alabama was one of the first states to pass a law elevating its homeland security effort to cabinet-level status.

The Alabama Homeland Security Act of 2003 states that the department exists “to assist, coordinate, and encourage homeland security preparedness.” State law doesn’t give the agency direct law enforcement duties, though it grants broader powers, including the ability to help enforce quarantines, in times of statewide emergency. Department officials couldn’t recall a time when those powers had been invoked.

“We’re not first responders,” Roberts said. “We take a holistic approach to homeland security.”

Over the past nine years, Roberts said, the department has created and run a fusion center to help law enforcement agencies share intelligence. The agency has also provided city and county governments with “communications bridges” — equipment that links the radio systems of various law enforcement agencies, helping them communicate better. Both issues — lack of intelligence-sharing and lack of interoperable radios — were problems in the lead-up and response to Sept. 11, Roberts said.

The agency also developed the Alabama Mutual Aid System, a statewide system that helps first responders share resources efficiently, Roberts said. Anyone who lived through the 2011 tornadoes saw that system in operation, Roberts said.

“We could deploy teams from the southern part of the state to the northern part of the state, where there was more damage,” Roberts said.

Almost all of that work has been done through federal grants. In fact, Roberts said, the bulk of the department’s funding consists of grants that pass right through to city and county agencies.

That funding has been steadily declining. The department got $36.8 million from the federal government in 2004, its first full year as a cabinet-level department, according to numbers Roberts provided. This year, it has just $2.8 million in federal funds.

“It does impact us,” Roberts said. “The support clearly isn’t as robust as it was.”

Shifting roles

The budget situation has been complicated by Alabama’s immigration law. The law gives the agency responsibility for running a help desk for employers who need to check the immigration status of potential employees through the federal E-Verify system.

The E-Verify center has been contracted out to another state agency, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Leah Garner. Still, paying for that contract takes up more than half of the department’s state funding, Garner said.

Jeff Ryan, head of the doctoral program in emergency management in Jacksonville State University, said all state homeland security departments have faced challenges over the past decade as the meaning of “homeland security” has continued to shift.

Anti-terrorism measures were a national focus after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ryan said. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, agencies adopted an “all-hazards” approach, he said. Then came pandemic preparedness, in response to concerns about bird flu.

“The government’s always focused on the last disaster,” Ryan said. That changing mission has made it hard to run a state homeland security effort, he said.

“The people in the state homeland security offices have a tough job,” he said.

Different, but not gone

Despite the downward trend, no one thinks funding for Homeland Security will dwindle to zero.

“I don’t see that happening,” said state Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, a member of the Joint Committee on Homeland Security. “I don’t think there will come a time when people don’t see a need for homeland security.”

But changes to the department may be coming.

Department officials say Gov. Robert Bentley has appointed a task force, headed by Homeland Security director Spencer Collier, to streamline Alabama’s statewide public safety agencies. Garner said the task force, which will report to the governor in mid-December, has been asked to propose ways to cut 10 percent from the agencies’ total expenditures. The task force is looking at consolidation of agencies and ways to sell unneeded property, Garner said, but isn’t considering personnel cuts.

Asked whether the task force might consider merging Homeland Security with another agency, Garner said all options were being considered.

“There’s nothing that’s been ruled out at this point,” Garner said. “Everything is on the table.”

Because the department is established by law, any change to its structure would likely require legislative action. The Legislature’s next regular session begins in February.

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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