Just as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach recover from months of slow operations after a labor dispute, a budget battle in Washington threatens new snags.
Port officials rely on federal grant money to help pay for their security operations. But funding from the Department of Homeland Security, which disburses the grants, is hung up in a Congressional budget battle. The department is funded only through Friday. If Congress fails to pass a bill, and the agency goes into partial shutdown, some of this grant money could be held up.
“Security and maintenance systems is paid for substantially through federal grant funding," said Randy Parsons, security director for the Port of Long Beach. "And if those systems aren’t kept up and running properly, we’re at quite a disadvantage.”
These security systems include closed-circuit television and radar to track the movement of ships, he said. Federal grant money is even used to cover overtime for security personnel.
Parsons said in the event of a short-term Homeland Security shutdown, some projects may have to wait, such as a plan to enhance security cameras as part of a port expansion.
"We have people working on projects that, if the federal grant moneys were to stop...within a period of weeks, our projects would stop," Parsons said.
He explained that the Long Beach port was awarded more than $3 million this year through what's called the Port Security Grant Program, administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Only some of the money has been received so far.
FEMA administers public safety-related grants to a host of local agencies, including a long list of fire departments who use it to fund operations and safety programs, even hiring.
In an emailed statement, Homeland Security officials said if there is a budget shutdown, federal employees in "essential" roles would keep working. But employees deemed non-essential, including those who work on grant programs, would not. From the agency's statement:
DHS and FEMA personnel working on grants programs would be furloughed, ceasing any further activity intended to help build and sustain state and local capabilities to respond to terrorism, disasters, and other emergencies. Should a DHS funding hiatus be prolonged, state and local communities may have to eliminate jobs that are dependent upon grants funding.
In the meantime, West Coast ports have been getting back to normal operations, clearing cargo backlogs after a months-long labor standoff and other problems.
Parsons said one advantage is that the ports have already been on a heightened security alert in light of the slowdown. But there's lots of work to be done.
"It's already a busy time," he said. "Everyone wants to move their cargo."