WASHINGTON – The searing events of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a floodgate of federal spending for homeland security and emergency response, with Congress and the new Department of Homeland Security pumping money into states and communities from Maine to California.

Debate over whether all that money has been spent wisely hasn’t quieted in the decade since the attacks on New York and Washington. But there’s no debate that homeland security funding is tightening, and the flow of money is slowing.

More than $35 billion has been spent nationally to improve the ability of state emergency management agencies and first responders in cities and towns to respond to a crisis, whether it’s a terrorist attack, a chemical spill or a hurricane.

Homeland security spending in Maine totaled more than $208 million in the federal fiscal years from 2002 to 2010, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency and the office of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“It is a budget reality that we are not going to be able to afford to fund these programs at the level that we have in the past,” said Collins, who also is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But fortunately, a lot of good has come from these programs already, so we have improved preparedness and the ability of our first responders to be effective no matter what the hazard is.”

MONEY BALLOONS, THEN SHRINKS

In the first few years after Sept. 11, federal homeland security funding for Maine — for emergency planning and training, fire and police equipment, and improved communication equipment for first responders — shot up, from less than $9.3 million in 2002 to nearly $35.7 million in 2003 and more than $36 million in 2004.

But it has never exceeded $24.5 million since then, and it stayed in the range of $21 million to $24 million through 2009 only because of several one-time grants. Funding fell to about $16.5 million in 2010.

For fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30, total funding amounts are not yet final, but the downward trend continues.

Grant funding for the Maine Emergency Management Agency — the largest single source of homeland security funding sent to Maine over the past decade — was cut from $6.6 million in 2010 to $5.1 million for 2011. It is expected to be cut further for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The agency distributes 80 percent of the money to county agencies and local departments and keeps 20 percent for salaries and administrative costs.

The second-largest chunk of homeland security funding for Maine comes from three types of grants that go directly to fire departments. Those grants totaled more than $57.6 million from 2002 to 2010. The biggest of them, the assistance to firefighters grant, dropped to about $1.3 million in 2010 from more than $3.4 million in 2009.

‘LIKE DROPS ON THE POND’

Among those who question the value of sending so much homeland security money to states and communities is James Carafano, a homeland security expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

He called the spending a “double loser,” saying the homeland security department has been underfunding important federal programs such as building more ships for the Coast Guard, but “doling all kinds of money to state and local governments.”

“You take all that money and you spread it so thinly that it is like drops on the pond,” Carafano said. “It is wildly ineffective.”

Last year, to protect the amount of money going to fire departments around the country, Congress slashed other parts of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, Carafano said, showing the true “pork barrel” nature of the grants.

But Portland Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said that with a down economy and local budgets stretched thin, the federal programs “help meet new threats and new challenges.”

On Tuesday, firefighters used equipment and training funded through federal grants to safely contain an accidental chemical reaction at Portland’s wastewater treatment plant, LaMontagne said. The total cost of the gear, such as hazardous-materials suits, meters and monitoring equipment, was about $750,000 and the training to handle such an incident was valued at about $250,000, he said.

“That event leveraged training and equipment purchased through homeland security dollars,” said LaMontagne.

In all, Portland has received just over $1 million in firefighting grants since 2002, and $9 million in grants to help secure its port, where oil companies and cruise lines do business.

The port security money is shared by other entities, such as the harbor commission and South Portland, as well as companies that can use some of the money to help secure their facilities, matching it with their own funds.

South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said his department has received about $2 million in federal homeland security grants, and most of it has gone for communications gear and advanced training.

A $1.2 million grant shared by South Portland and Portland enabled South Portland to spend $600,000 on communications gear to get on the same radio platform as Portland firefighters, something that has served both forces well.

When a small plane crashed last year on Western Avenue in South Portland, near the Portland city line, responders from both cities were able to communicate on a common operations channel.

“There is no border now, as far as communications between our two cities,” Guimond said. “Homeland security funds made this possible.”

LEERY OF FUNDING LOSSES

Bruce Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said some of the federal money for Maine predates Sept. 11.

For instance, an emergency management performance grant — which has increased steadily, from $1.5 million in 2002 to $3.3 million in 2010 — helps the state and counties better run their emergency response programs and command centers.

Lynette Miller, MEMA’s communications director, said Hurricane Katrina, not the fear of terrorism, spurred the federal government to increase what it gives out nationwide for emergency management performance grants.

But agency officials fear that the overall decline in homeland security and emergency response money means trouble for states and communities that have spent a decade trying to build a state, regional and national network to respond to manmade and natural catastrophes.

“We have missions to maintain,” Fitzgerald said.

Where might the Maine Emergency Management Agency and local departments get the kind of money they need from non-federal sources?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Miller said.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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