Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Chicago has yet to receive a dime from the feds for NATO and G8

Posted By on 02.22.12 at 04:18 PM

Zilch.

That’s how much federal aid Chicago officials have procured so far to cover the costs of preparation and security for the NATO and G8 summits.

Chicago officials continue to promise local taxpayers that the federal government will pick up the tab for security at the May summits, as Ben Joravsky and I wrote last week. They’ve even suggested that millions of dollars in assistance are already on the way, thanks in large part to our mayor’s close ties with the Obama administration. “No one knows his way around Washington like Mayor Emanuel,” a top summit organizer told reporters in a background briefing last month, on the condition that her name not be used so that she could speak “freely.”

So far, though, the federal government hasn’t provided any funds for the NATO and G8 meetings, though the city is already spending taxpayer dollars on security training and equipment.

“The city of Chicago has not yet received any grants for the NATO and G8 summits,” says Delores Robinson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

It’s not for lack of effort. Last fall the city applied for $7.5 million in funds. But the grant didn’t come through—the federal government spent the money it had available on an international economic meeting in Honolulu last November.

City officials say they remain confident that Chicago will receive the bulk of available "National Special Security Event" money this year. But what the amount will be, and whether it will cover all the summit costs, won’t be known until after the meetings.

“We will be reimbursed after the fact,” OEMC executive director Gary Schenkel told aldermen last month. Schenkel went on to say that the sources of reimbursement weren’t yet clear.

City officials haven’t been any more specific in the time since. A spokeswoman for the Chicago summit committee tells me that Obama administration officials “didn’t think it would be a problem to get the federal funds.” The spokeswoman also says her name can’t be used in print, even though she was talking with me because Lori Healey, the head of Rahm Emanuel's summit committee, was not available for an interview.

In fact, little about the funding process has been transparent. It took me a month of calling, e-mailing, and submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to the city, state, and federal governments before I got an answer to a simple question: how much summit funding has been awarded to Chicago so far?

The answer, in case you missed it, is none.

That’s not what we were led to believe. In September city and county officials announced that the Chicago area had received a $55 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with about $32 million going to the city.

Schenkel stressed that this money would help them prepare for the international summits. “Chicago’s top emergency planner said the grant will be most useful in planning training exercises to handle security at the simultaneous economic and defense summits, which are likely to attract thousands of demonstrators,” the Tribune reported.

We wrote about it too. But in January I asked for copies of the grant application, and after a couple of delays, the city finally sent me something last week. Interestingly, it was a copy of the application for a different grant—the $7.5 million in NSSE funds. (You can see a PDF of the materials here.)

As we often say around here, if this seems confusing, that's probably because it is. The bottom line is that the city sent me the records for a grant Chicago didn’t get—instead of the grant for much more money that the city actually won.

After I asked for an explanation, city officials eventually conceded that the $55 million grant isn’t really designated for the summits. It’s part of a separate federal program called the Urban Areas Security Initiative. According to federal guidelines, the funds are meant to “address the unique planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas”—regardless of whether a summit is happening there.

The Urban Areas Security Initiative grant is “really general money used for all of the city,” says Robinson, the OEMC spokeswoman.

In fact, these funds have been used for years to help cover OEMC’s annual operating budget, which is about $269 million in 2012.

Put another way, it’s not money sitting around for the summits—it helps underwrite the department that manages the 911 system, a network of security cameras, and terrorism prevention. The department does these things in an era when the police force is downsizing.

Summit preparations come on top of OEMC’s regular work. If some of this grant money is spent on NATO and G8 it won’t be available for the everyday functions covered by the rest of the OEMC budget.

Moreover, this source of funding was shrinking even before anything could be siphoned off for special events. Despite the summits, the Chicago area is only eligible to receive $47 million in UASI funds in 2012, down about 13 percent from 2011. That’s the result of cuts to the federal program.

City officials say “it’s too soon to tell” what the total cost of the summits will be and who will pay for what. The city guesstimates that the tab will be between $40 million and $65 million, but as we reported last week, officials haven’t conducted any formal cost-benefit analysis. “The city has not finalized any estimates and OEMC is only in possession of draft figures that are currently being revised,” a spokeswoman wrote in response to our FOIA request for analysis materials.

But when and if they do conduct a formal study of summit expenses, we won’t be able to see it. Sharing information about how much the public could pay or benefit from the summits would be a public safety risk, the spokeswoman told us.

“Providing information concerning these tentative details could impede the effectiveness of the final security plan, and jeopardize the safety of the first responders and public in general.”

Ben Joravsky and Joey Jachowski contributed to this post.

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