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KC seeks new homeland security funds, but McCaskill is not optimistic

Updated: 2014-02-11T06:33:47Z

By LYNN HORSLEY and DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City emergency responders who spend their lives preparing for man-made and natural disasters are now mobilizing against a different kind of threat.

They fear the permanent loss of federal funds to keep ahead of terrorist attacks and other risks. Thirteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and after the federal government has poured billions of dollars into homeland security across the country, the federal investment in metropolitan areas like Kansas City may be drying up.

In fact, Kansas City already has missed out on funding this year, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill was not optimistic about getting it restored.

McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, addressed that predicament at a recent meeting where Kansas City Councilman John Sharp asked for help in getting the funding renewed for Kansas City and similar metro areas that have dropped off the list of communities considered at greatest risk.

“I’m going to be really candid with you,” McCaskill said. “I don’t think the federal government will ever go back to the level of funding that was previously enjoyed for what have traditionally been municipal responsibilities.”

While McCaskill’s office said she continues to advocate for urban security funding for the Kansas City metro area, her staff said she is also acknowledging the difficult political and financial climate in Washington.

But Sharp and others say they are not giving up and insist they are simply seeking a modest amount of money in coming years so the tens of millions of dollars that the federal government has already provided to the area for emergency equipment, training and response capability won’t have been wasted.

“We understand the federal government has to tighten its belt,” Sharp said, adding that he wants a fairer way of distributing money that doesn’t “just leave medium-sized cities like Kansas City and Oklahoma City out to dry.”

The grants are part of the Urban Areas Security Initiative, a federal program to help communities considered vulnerable to a terrorist incident. Since 2003, Kansas City’s bistate, eight-county metro area has received nearly $73 million to train and equip multiple hazmat, technical rescue, bomb squad and terrorism early warning teams. The money also has gone to purchases such as rescue boats and radio systems that link firefighters and police to other emergency responders and hospitals.

The Kansas City region received $9.7 million in 2003, $13.2 million in 2004 and between $7 million and $9 million annually from 2005 to 2010. But then the bottom fell out. The city received no funding in 2011, got $1.2 million in 2012, and then again nothing in 2013.

What was notable about 2013 was that funding was limited to the 25 communities considered at greatest risk. Kansas City ranked 31st. Other cities like Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and New Orleans also fell off the list of eligible cities.

That’s where Sharp and others are urging the federal government to re-evaluate.

“For a city like Kansas City that has suffered killer tornadoes and floods and has the third-longest levee system in the nation to be told, ‘Well, you’re on your own,’ really isn’t fair when they’re still pumping big money into the so-called 25 top threatened areas,” Sharp said.

Kansas City may not be as vulnerable to terrorist attack as New York City, but it has been known as a recruiting area for terrorism activities tied to Hamas and al-Qaida, said Capt. Daniel Gates, director of the Kansas City terrorism early warning interagency analysis center, which has received some of the grant funding.

“Recruiting, planning and training have occurred in our area, so it’s important those things are monitored,” Gates said.

The money has provided equipment for water rescues as well as trench and building collapses and the response to the huge ChemCentral fire in the East Bottoms in 2007. The most dramatic use of the equipment and teams came in the massive local response after the 2011 Joplin tornado.

Gene Shepherd, emergency manager for Kansas City, said the huge investments have been made, and the metro area is just seeking reasonable ongoing funding.

“We understand the government is drawing back and maybe rightfully so,” he said. “We’d like to see $1 million to $2 million (annually) to sustain the equipment that we’ve got and invested in and the training and capabilities.”

Without it, Shepherd and others warn that within a few years, the community will have trouble replacing vital equipment and keeping emergency crews adequately trained and credentialed.

McCaskill cautioned that the list of eligible cities could continue to shrink.

“The other thing I think will happen, those 25 cities will go to 15 cities,” she said. “And eventually they’ll go down to the point that there may not be any funding.”

McCaskill said she realized the equipment and training have been helpful to cities. But she said not all the dollars were well spent.

“As an auditor, I audited the first round of funding when every city got hazmat suits,” she said. “And I found a bunch of those hazmat suits in boxes that had never been opened. … So we rushed a lot of money out in ways that probably weren’t prudent.”

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi, whose department has used grant funding, said there were no unused hazmat suits in Kansas City.

“We would welcome people to come in and take a microscope” to the region’s use of the funds, he said.

Local officials say there is still reason for hope in 2014.

For one thing, this year the Department of Homeland Security is not specifically limiting funding to the top 25 cities. And available funding has actually increased from $559 million to $600 million.

Gates said communities have until Friday to provide a response as to why they deserve funding, and a decision on who is eligible for funding will be announced in March.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver says he is pushing for ongoing funding for Kansas City.

“UASI grants make a dramatic difference, and without this critical funding, the already-challenging jobs of police officers, firefighters and first responders get even harder,” Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said in a statement.

Sharp says it would not be responsible for the federal government to completely close the tap.

“We’re not asking to go out and buy a lot of expensive toys,” he said. “We’re just asking to replace outdated equipment and supplies and keep the training up.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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