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Region's emergency preparedness grant funding cut in half

The Baltimore region — including Howard County — will receive about half as much federal funding from a key emergency preparedness grant program in fiscal year 2012 as it did in fiscal year 2011, according to budget figures released Feb. 17 by the Department of Homeland Security, which grants the funds.

As one of 31 cities to receive funding through the department's Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program, Baltimore will receive about $4.1 million in 2012, compared to the $7.8 million it received in 2011.

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For local emergency officials, the announcement was welcome news.

A $1 billion federal cut to the DHS grant budget in December had convinced many that Baltimore's UASI funding would be cut entirely, as it was this year for a handful of other cities, including Norfolk and Pittsburgh.

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Instead, the glass remains half full, so to speak.

"It's good news for the region," said Ryan Miller, deputy director of Howard's Office of Emergency Management and a member of Baltimore's Urban Area Work Group, which oversees the funding. "While it's a big cut, it certainly could have been a lot worse."

"We're relieved that the funding wasn't eliminated," said Bob Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management in Baltimore and chair of the work group. "We're relieved that the federal government understood the importance of Baltimore, the Baltimore region, as an area that has critical things that need to be protected."

The Baltimore UASI program, which includes Baltimore City, Annapolis and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, has received funding since 2003, to the tune of almost $107 million, including the 2012 allocation. Funding was highest in 2004, when the area was awarded more than $17.5 million. The region otherwise received funding between $10 and $12 million per year until more dramatic cuts were made last year.

Howard has received almost $7.5 million from the program since 2003.

Though the program's funding this year is by far the lowest yearly amount to date, it will allow local officials to maintain existing emergency capabilities — like the region's Central Maryland Area Radio Communications system — that were initially paid for with UASI funding and could have become too expensive to maintain were funding cut entirely, officials said.

Maloney said he is thankful that that concern can now be put to rest, at least for the time being.

"Not having the ability to prepare and protect, given the threats we face, would have been very troubling," he said.

The work group has until early May to produce a new budget proposal and grant application based on the funding allocation, something that Cal Bowman, the group's senior policy advisor, said he is already working on.

Bowman said he will have each of the group's various working committees revisit their project proposals and reevaluate what should be prioritized. The work group's executive committee will then review all proposals and make final decisions on which programs and initiatives it will be able to continue.

Bowman said the process will be like trying to "squeeze a grapefruit into the size of a lemon," and that any new initiatives will likely be "curbed and tabled for a while" in favor of continuing existing projects.

But, in general, he said he is "relieved in the sense that we're going to be able to keep the lights on for another year."

Maloney said in the next few months the executive committee, which normally meets once a month, will likely be meeting more often.

"I've sent a message out to the group, pretty much saying, 'This is the start of a very intensive work period,' " he said.

Steve Davis, founder and owner of the Columbia-based emergency management and homeland security consulting consortium All Hands Consulting, said he and others who follow the UASI program were "pleasantly surprised" by the funding level for Baltimore and for the overall UASI program, which received about $490 million in total.

But Davis, who lives in Allview Estates and founded the National UASI Conference in 2005, said he is also concerned about a change in the grant program that requires the 2012 funding be spent within two years, as opposed to the three years that recipient cities were given to spend 2011 funding.

Because all of the funding must be spent on contracts that have been competitively bid on, and because procurement processes take time, Davis said the two-year timeframe might force cities to make spending decisions they otherwise wouldn't make.

"I think a lot of them, due to the spending pressure, are going to have to buy things that aren't necessarily for sustainment and maintenance," he said.

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