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DES MOINES — Priorities have changed. The money's drying up.

Now, Iowans are going to have to decide how much they're willing to pay toward securing the homeland closest to home.

Tens of millions of dollars have come to Iowa's police departments, firehouses and regional health centers courtesy of the federal government during the post-9/11 decade.

But as national priorities shifted to protecting the country's population centers and money was diverted to foreign wars, the state's cut shrunk. Then the recession hit, which caused the federal government to clamp down further on money that might have once made it to the Hawkeye state.

Homeland security experts say there's no reason to think this trend of less federal assistance will change anytime soon, absent another Sept. 11-type attack.

That means, over the next decade, equipment purchased with federal money - think of the mobile command units that show up at community events - will continue to age. Meanwhile, the people who were among the first to receive federally funded disaster response will move into retirement.

Where, then, will the money to replace that equipment and expertise come from?

So far, the answer isn't clear.

"That's a good question," Brig. Gen. Derek Hill, who runs the Iowa Homeland Security Department, said during a meeting at his office at the Iowa National Guard's Camp Dodge in Johnston. "We're really wondering about that."

 

Millions spent

The main source of federal first-responder money is the federal State Homeland Security Grant Program, which has paid for everything from work gloves and extension cords to state-of-the-art, satellite-linked communication equipment for first responders.

It is by far the largest of a myriad grant programs aimed at providing equipment and training for people who are the state's front line response to disasters, natural or otherwise. Since 2003, the program has provided more than $100.7 million to local agencies in Iowa.

That's more than three times as much as the next most popular program, the Emergency Management Performance grant, which was in use before Sept. 11 and has been good for an average of $3.3 million a year since 2003.

But roughly half of the homeland security program money allocated to Iowa was in the program's first two years, 2003 and 2004. In recent years, the annual funding has gone as low as $3.8 million in 2007, and last year, it was $5.1 million.

"Discussions in D.C. are raising important questions about national homeland security strategy and financing," said Scott Sommers, vice mayor of Mesa, Ariz., who also works as a public safety consultant and serves on George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Sommers said the trend has been to push more money into high-population, high-risk cities such as New York or Washington, D.C. Places such as Waterloo, or even Des Moines, just don't rate high on the threat list.

John Benson, Hill's No. 2 in the Iowa Department of Homeland Security, who also serves as the department's legislative liaison, said city councils, county supervisors and the state will be asked to make up the difference.

"It's going to be up to the taxpayers," Hill said. "Prioritization. Do you want service A or service B? If the county or the city or the legislature comes back and says, ‘We can only fund the following services,' our lawmakers and our leaders are going to have to make those decisions."

 

Regional approach

In many cases, those decisions likely will involve taxpayers separated by hundreds of miles of land and dozens of political boundaries.

"There's no one city that could take up this cost by itself," Sioux City Fire Chief Tom Everett said.

Everett is talking about the Urban Search and Rescue Unit based in Sioux City. It's one of two in the state - the other is in Cedar Rapids - whose members are specially outfitted and trained to respond to disasters in urban environments. Since 2003, more than $2.2 million has gone to the unit.

The Sioux City-based unit is responsible for urban rescue missions in the western half of Iowa and can be deployed to other states. It has yet to respond to a terrorist attack, but, Everett said, it has been used this year in response to the Mapleton, Iowa, tornado and in response to the Missouri River flooding near Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The regional approach is encouraged by federal policy decisions that place a high value on coordination between governments. In response to this, the state split itself into six homeland security regions in 2005, each responsible for coordinating efforts in countywide emergency management areas.

Steve O'Neil, coordinator for the combined Cerro Gordo/Franklin County Emergency Management Agency, said the new reality is evident.

"At the very beginning, I think you had millions of dollars available, and I think, while you would like to say it was all used for things that were absolutely necessary, I can't say with 100 percent certainty that it all was," he said.

O'Neil is in the middle of doing an inventory on the equipment assigned to the county's Community Emergency Response Team. It's a group of volunteers that receives special training to respond to a disaster. Theirs is a largely support role that includes, for example, making sure blankets and hot beverages are available for people who lose their homes in a flood or that someone can help direct traffic around a closed area.

He said about 300 people have taken the training, although "about 100 are what you'd consider active members."

Benson, the state legislative liaison, has begun working on his own inventory of everything that the state has obtained through federal homeland security money. A final report, which is expected to be ready in November, will outline what capabilities the state has, what it still needs or wants and what it might be able to do without.

After that report comes out, Hill said, the lobbying of state and local officials begins in earnest.

"Ultimately, preparedness is a shared responsibility between local, states and the federal government, not to mention individuals and the private sector," said Sommers, summarizing the current thought in Washington, D.C. "All parties must take responsibility and invest in prevention and readiness."

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