Disaster officials criticize budget funding cut

Parish officials across Louisiana are worried about the financial sustainability of emergency preparedness operations after a big shift in funding for offices.

At issue is a federal grant amounting to $5.4 million. State and local governments had always shared the money, but the Jindal administration now plans to take a bigger slice of the pie.

The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, or GOHSEP, took 35 percent of the federal grant last year, allowing parishes to divvy up the remaining $3.4 million. This year, however, GOHSEP plans to take 65 percent, leaving parishes with $1.9 million.

Though only a modest amount, in smaller parishes, the grant dollars supply the bulk of funding. In the Baton Rouge suburb of West Feliciana Parish, for instance, the entire emergency preparedness budget last year came from the federal grant.

Other parish officials say they need the dollars to pay staff and to buy essential supplies such as water and radios.

The local offices coordinate emergency response efforts and disaster planning. They stockpile resources. They help request federal assistance when disaster strikes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center’s preseason forecast calls for seven to 11 storms this season to become hurricanes.

“All disasters are local. We know our limitations. We know how to fight the battle. GOHSEP is in a support role only,” said retired Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, deputy mayor for public safety in New Orleans.

GOHSEP initially wanted to take 80 percent of the federal grant. That decision coincided with Gov. Bobby Jindal shrinking the amount of dollars the office gets from the state general fund.

Parish officials complained, resulting in a compromise during the recent legislative session.

Legislators directed parishes and the state to split the $5.4 million grant in half, or $2.7 million each. Jindal vetoed that language, thereby giving $3.5 million to the state and $1.9 million to parishes.

“That really cuts the heart out of emergency preparedness at the local level,” said Tommy Boyett, emergency management director of West Feliciana Parish.

Boyett said he will struggle to keep his office open despite problems with Mississippi River flooding and the presence of a nuclear plant. “At some point in time, it may have to resort back to a part-time office, and that’s not good,” he said.

Sneed wrote the governor’s homeland security director, Kevin Davis, in March asking him to reconsider the decision and seek input from those affected.

Homeland security or emergency management directors in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes cosigned the letter.

At the time, the state wanted to take 80 percent of the grant — news Davis delivered in an email instead of bringing it up at a meeting with local officials, Sneed said.

Sneed said parishes got more than 60 percent of the grant in previous years. He said Orleans Parish’s portion in the state fiscal year that starts next week will drop from $154,000 to $64,000.

Sneed said his office also works special events and is called upon during heavy rainstorms. “We’re more than just the hurricane. But with an active hurricane season, we are very, very worried,” he said.

In a prepared statement, Davis said local governments need to set priorities and fund critical needs.

Davis, the former St. Tammany Parish president, is in his second year as director of GOHSEP.

“Parishes can use this funding in their communities for emergency response as they see fit, and GOHSEP is committed to continual support of local governments before, after and during a time of crisis. That support includes disaster preparation and response training, regional emergency coordination and distribution of resources during and after an emergency,” he said.

Davis said the grant only materializes after the state matches 50 percent of the funds.

Mark Harrell, who worked for GOHSEP before becoming director of the Livingston Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, said a lot of parishes will not make it without additional funding.

He said Livingston’s portion will drop from $75,000 to $38,000.