Millions in Michigan security, disaster aid at risk

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Tens of millions of dollars in security and disaster aid for Michigan are endangered, but the border is assured of remaining open as Congress races to try to extend funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security beyond Friday night.

Federal security personnel at Detroit's tunnel, bridge and airport would still work and keep traffic moving in the event of a budget impasse.

But future money for state and local government homeland security and emergency management grants remains uncertain because the department has operated for five months with stopgap funding while Republican congressional leaders have battled President Barack Obama about his decision to allow millions of immigrants in the country illegally to obtain work permits. Michigan received more than $21 million annually in security and emergency management grants in 2013 and 2014, according to the state.

"We rely on that grant coming to us every year," said Ted Quisenberry, manager of Oakland County Emergency Management. "If there is a disruption, then it would certainly impact us and any preparation for a terrorist or emergency incident."

A partial department shutdown also would likely delay millions of dollars for Metro Detroit communities needing to repair public buildings, equipment and infrastructure damaged by the August 2014 flood, said Ron Leix, public information officer for the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

Those are among the effects Michigan would experience if the 230,000-employee department with a $60 billion budget shuts down Friday. Stopgap funding has ensured continued operations for existing grants as well as Homeland Security's 22 agencies, which include the Transportation Security Administration, FEMA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The vast majority of employees — about 200,000 — would be required to continue working but would not be paid, according to the Homeland Security department. About 30,000 would be furloughed, including many at Department of Homeland Security's headquarters not considered essential personnel.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that operating without a permanent budget "is like trying to go across the country with five gallons of gas without knowing where the next gas station is."

The U.S. House passed a bill over Democratic objections that would finance the Homeland Security Department and eliminate funding for president's immigration actions, but Senate Democrats for weeks have refused to allow action on the House legislation.

The situation shifted when a federal judge in Texas last week issued a ruling that put the immigration program on hold, while the White House appealed. Senate Democrats said Wednesday they will back a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to hold two votes — one on an extension of Homeland Security funding without legislative riders and a separate resolution opposing the immigration actions. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hasn't said what House Republicans will do.

"Democrats can fund DHS now, not by holding more hypocritical press conferences but by ending their senseless filibuster and cooperating across the aisle," McConnell said.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, said Wednesday that Republicans are "again set on a collision course — this time they will shut down the Department of Homeland Security because they refuse to pass a clean spending bill because they want to block the administration's executive actions on immigration."

In an interview, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said thousands of people in Michigan who work for the Homeland Security Department would not be paid during a shutdown. He said many places like Detroit and Flint still face financial challenges and rely on grants.

"Stopping those grants makes no sense," Peters said.

Rep. Candice Miller, vice chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee, blamed Senate Democrats for creating a financial crisis by blocking votes on funding.

"Since the (Texas) court issued a stay on the president's amnesty action last week, their objection to the provisions that defund amnesty are pointless and, now, threatening the paychecks of the hardworking men and women who work to protect this country," said Miller, R-Harrison Township. "I am hopeful that the Senate majority leader's new proposal to advance funding legislation works because we must keep DHS fully funded."

State government would not be affected immediately by a Homeland Security budget impasse because it is on a different budget cycle, Michigan State Police's Leix said Wednesday. "We don't anticipate any layoffs," he said.

But aid payments to Metro Detroit city and county governments communities for last summer's flooding could get held up because furloughed federal staffers couldn't process paperwork, Leix said.

In southeast Michigan, more than 126,000 people sought help after August flooding, FEMA officials said. As of December, $140.2 million FEMA grants have been approved in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Most emergency aid for individuals and small businesses has been handled, Leix said. But grant paperwork for public buildings and infrastructure still needs to be processed, he said.

"If there is a furlough, we will continue to work with our communities to ensure our paperwork is in order," Leix said. "That way we can hit the ground running when funding is restored."

Among those awaiting flood money is Oakland County, which requested about $1.3 million to help repair the George Kuhn water treatment center in Madison Heights, a public health center in Southfield and three vehicles, Quisenberry said.

Officials in Warren expect federal relief to help with cleanup and repair of items ruined by the flood. For now, the city is using the majority a $5 million insurance payment to repair the police department and courthouse, City Controller Rob Maleszyk said Wednesday.

"I hope Congress would get their act together and, in a bipartisan fashion, would maintain the financial stability of all the Metro area in terms of the help that is needed," Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said.

A budget impasse also would mean an acknowledgment from federal officials but no processing of requests from governors for presidential declarations of a major disaster or emergency, Leix said. The exception would be for large-scale catastrophic incidents such a terrorist attack that require "the protection of life and property," he said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Ursula Watson contributed.