PSIC grants fail to impress—even with a billion dollars

With the benefit of a billion dollars in funding and six years ofexperience administering homeland security grants, the Public SafetyInteroperable Communications (PSIC) program had all the ingredients foran efficient, transparent, and ultimately effective rollout.
The Department of Commerce, rightly recognizing its lack of experiencein public safety, handed the administrative duties for the program tothe Department of Homeland Security (DHS), along with a few basicguidelines imposed by Congress: that the funds be awarded by Sept. 30,2007; that states be required to pass through 80 percent of their funding to local public safety agencies; and that all awardees matchtheir grants with 20 cents of local funding for every 80 cents of PSICfunding they received.
Not surprisingly, given the impossibly short timeline imposed byCongress, the funds were only partly administered by Sept. 30. Inmid-August, states submitted a nominal form to DHS indicating theirinterest in receiving their formula-driven share of the PSIC funds.However, the two most important requirements for funding—the StatewideCommunications Interoperability Plans and State InvestmentJustifications (which define what the funds will actually be usedfor)—were not due until Dec. 3.
These delays are understandable, of course—it’s a large, one-timeprogram and a topic not exclusively funded before through DHS. As apoint of information, it may be worth noting that the Department of Justice (DoJ) had administered hundreds of millions of dollars forinteroperability from 2003 to 2005 through the now-defunct COPSInteroperable Communications program. Consistent with the trends thathave been emerging over the past several years, however, DoJ was passedover to administer the funding in favor of DHS.

Passing through 
The second requirement imposed by Congress was that each state passthrough at least 80 percent of its funding to local public safetyagencies, consisting of homeland security, law enforcement, fire andemergency medical services, among others. Although the guidance doesn’tspecify how the funds should be passed through, the traditional formatsare competitive grants, formula grants and in-kind. Further,theguidance requires that the funds be distributed within 60 days ofapproval of the state investment justification.
The in-kind pass-through approach caused some serious embarrassment forstates in the early days of homeland security funding. In thenow-infamous 2004 Conference of Mayors report,Tracking FederalHomeland Security Funds Sent to the 50 State Governments , 49percent of cities reported that they had not been given adequateopportunity to influence their states in regard to how these fundscould be used in their cities, and many respondents indicatedfrustration that the state drove the process. A respondent fromFairfield, Conn., stated, “Wrong needs are being met. We need coreequipment and uniforms. We have received only in-kind equipment.” 

Power to the locals
In light of the history of these types of concerns, DHS wisely placedtwo restrictions on states retaining pass-through funds forexpenditures made “on behalf of the local pass-through entities.” DHSofficial guidance stated that a state could retain the funds otherwisedestined for a local jurisdiction only if it was requested in writingto do so by the pass-through recipients, and it entered into amemorandum of understanding (MoU) with applicable local governmentand/or tribal government entities.
These are reasonable restrictions meant to ensure that pass-throughfunds are held at the state level only in cases where both the stateand local entity perceive the benefit of doing so.
Unfortunately, several states, and perhaps more than several, havedecided to circumvent these restrictions and exploit a general lack ofunderstanding of the program by local municipalities to keep more ofthe funding for statewide interoperability projects.
For example, Wisconsin’s PSIC document, “Public Safety InteroperableCommunications Funding in Wisconsin,” states that the StatewideInteroperability Executive Committee determined to use the PSICfunds—all $15 million—to build out a statewide communications backbone,and that “there is support for this common venture, and the state plansto document this statewide support through memoranda of understanding.”Of course, the state isn’t gathering these MoUs for the sake ofgoodwill, but to wrest control from local and regional initiativesaround the state. No indication at all is given in the document thatthis decision rests with the local governments, noting only that“funding a series of regional projects will cause needless andexpensive duplicate equipment purchases. For example, radiocontrollers—essentially switchboards for radio systems—averageapproximately $500,000.”
Most states are working to help use the local funds available tolocalities and regions as effectively as possible. Even states likeWisconsin may be able do more with their $15 million than all theirlocalities could do individually.  All the same, and not for the firsttime, the lack of empowerment and communication to the local level isevidence of a patronizing and condescending posture some states aretaking, which obscures a simple fact—it’s the locals’ money!

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