In the aftermath of the foiled terror plot against two synagogues in Riverdale, local political and Jewish leaders are asking the federal government to increase security funding to urban nonprofit organizations they say are most at risk.
The Urban Areas Security Initiative Nonprofit Security Grant Program – a Department of Homeland Security initiative that originated in 2005 drastically reduced the total amount of such grants in 2007 from just over $24 million nationwide to $15 million .
The funds, to be distributed in August, allow organizations to update their security safeguards by bringing in state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and training their employees to handle emergencies. To qualify, organizations must pass through individual state review boards, then undergo s national review to determine the amount of aid.
Many local legislators argue that the $15 million – just over a quarter of which went to New York institutions last year is far from enough for all the eligible applicants and that last week’s terror plot which could have injured dozens of civilians if not foiled by federal agents and the NYPD underscores the need for more aid.
“This plot is a stark reminder that religious institutions need sufficient resources to keep them safe from the threat of a terrorist attack,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told The Jewish Week via a spokesperson. “In the coming days, I plan to work with my colleagues in Washington to deliver the security funding we need to safeguard our synagogues and other community and religious institutions.”
The day after the four suspects were arrested, Gillibrand released a letter to members of the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security and its chairman, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), asking Congress to restore the figure to its initial $25 million. In New York alone last year, she explained, only 65 of the 137 nonprofit agencies who applied for grants actually received funding.
“The effective work and cooperation of the men and women of the FBI, NYPD and New York State Police was able to foil this terrorist plot, but we cannot be sure that this will always be the case,” the letter said.
“In the long haul, we have to look into giving religious institutions money for surveillance cameras – particularly synagogues that are vulnerable to Muslim radicals,” added Rep. Eliot Engel , a Democrat who represents Riverdale, who agreed with Gillibrand on the need to increase funding. “We should do it for all religious institutions around the country.”
When the Nonprofit Security Grant Program kicked off in 2005, Congress initially allocated a total of $25 million to nonprofit organizations, then offered nothing in 2006 and distributed over $24 million again in 2007. For 2008, however, the government cut the budget down to $15 million, where it remains today under the umbrella of a larger $798.6 Million Urban Areas Security Initiative that has provided funding to port authorities and public transit systems since 2003.
“Even if New York does as well as it has done in the past – and New York has done very well historically – fewer than half those who apply get funding,” said David Pollock, association executive director and director of government relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Last year, New York State received $4.16 million, 28 percent of the $15 million total, he noted.
Such support has allowed New Yorkers to work with the NYPD to achieve top protection in the city that he calls “the epicenter of the terrorists’ heart.” In the past two weeks alone, Pollock continued, board members of the Jewish Community Relations Council have met twice with representatives from the Police Department to discuss security for the upcoming Israel Day Parade.
“The work by the NYPD in general safeguarding us is incredible,” he said. “There [will] be a significant uniform police detail, an undercover detail and many, many other layers of protection that we are aware of and the public will never see.”
Overall, Pollock remains optimistic, adding that unlike former President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama has already directly included the $15 million in his Homeland Security budget.
“The Obama administration is proactively asking for $15 million to continue – it’s having another critical branch of government supporting it,” agreed Robert Goldberg, senior director of legislative affairs at the United Jewish Communities in Washington D.C., an organization that continuously lobbies the Department of Homeland Security to increase funds for the Urban Areas Security Initiative.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be starting from the point that the administration recognizes that this is a critical program, and we hope that given everything from Mumbai to Riverdale, there is an increase in funding,” Pollock added.
And outside New York – where the largest share of the funds are concentrated – the urge to boost federal security funds is perhaps even stronger.
“Only about half of the eligible Urban Areas Security Initiative jurisdictions received awards,” said Goldberg, whose United Jewish Communities represents 157 local Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities throughout North America. “Many of our communities did not receive – only very few applicants received. Based on the 2008 result we have argued that the program has been under-funded, and it has always been our effort to maintain the [original] $25 million level.”
Meanwhile, in a more localized reaction to the planned attacks in Riverdale, Councilman Simcha Felder (D–Brooklyn) is pushing the City Council to amend the city charter to allow the Department of Education to provide specific security measures to non-public schools – such as video surveillance and metal detectors.
But as Jews in New York and around the country await the government’s responses to the latest terror threats, Pollock suggests some cost-free ways to improve security measures, suchas requiring identification cards for building entrance or utilizing free NYPD security training sessions for synagogue staff members.
“Often the best solution needs no hardware and just means that you have to change a procedure,” said Pollock. “Better yet, do you have control as to who goes into and out of your building? None of those options cost any money and can do a world of good both to mitigate against terrorism and plain vanilla crime.”