Public safety programs could be impacted


By JOHN BURNETT

Tribune-Herald staff writer

As the partial shutdown of the federal government enters its 10th day, Big Island police and prosecutors say that operations dependent upon federal grants aren’t yet impacted, but that could change if the budget impasse isn’t resolved soon.

The police department receives federal grants to help fund drug and traffic enforcement, including DUI roadblocks and seat-belt checkpoints.

“We have a lot of traffic grants,” said Maj. Sam Thomas of the police Administrative Services Division. “Although it starts out with the federal government, they actually get funded through the state Attorney General’s office.”

“Most of them are basically reimbursements,” he continued. “We actually encumber them, which means we may (fund) them ahead of time. This being a new fiscal year, that probably wouldn’t be the case. But a lot of the federal grants actually filter through the state, and the state’s on a different fiscal year. But for the most part, we haven’t seen any change right now.”

Thomas said that for now, enforcement operations are “continuing as usual.”

“The only things that could be affected are, we may not be able to file our financial reports or our progress reports, because there would be nobody there to accept them,” he explained. “And some of the computer systems where you have to update them or upload them are down. Other than that, it really hasn’t affected us at this point in time.”

Asked if the department is keeping an eye on its grant money in case of a prolonged shutdown, Thomas replied: “Yes. We’d be foolish not to.”

“It would be speculative, but I’d say probably a month before we’d have to start seeing how much it will affect us. It depends on how long this thing drags out,” he said.

While police operations haven’t been affected, the partial federal shutdown has had an impact on at least one Big Island officer, Dispatch Lt. Melvin Yamamoto, who was attending the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

“Unfortunately, because of the federal shutdown, he was sent back home,” Thomas said. “I believe their class had been suspended. He’d been there a couple of weeks already.”

County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said Tuesday that his office has federal grants, as well, including Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grants.

“Provided that this shutdown doesn’t last for a prolonged period of time, we should be OK,” he said. “But if it goes on, then we may have some difficulties. We’re hoping that in the next couple of weeks, it gets fixed, but if it goes several months, it could cause us a lot of problems.

“These (grants) actually pay salaries for deputies and victim-witness counselors. We do have funds that are in there. We’re probably OK for the next several months, but if it gets extended, we’ll come back with a different story. But for now, we’re comfortable that we have money to take care of these people for a couple of months.”

Roth said his office’s federal grants are also disbursed through the state attorney general. Julie Ebato, an administrator for the A.G.’s office, said Tuesday the office handles “more than 90 active accounts” of “law enforcement grants that benefit the police and prosecutors at the county level.”

Ebato said current grants were awarded in the prior fiscal year which ended Sept. 30.

“The feds allow the states to draw down the full award when we’re awarded that money. So we have those moneys on hand and so the shutdown doesn’t impact us distributing those funds,” she said. “… What the federal government requires us to do, however, is that we can only draw down those moneys as needed. So we work with the counties on these monthly draw-down of funds. So the next monthly request for funds is going to be on (Oct. 15). We haven’t come to the point where we have to tell the counties we cannot front the money, so we cannot pay off their request for funds. And this, again, is on a reimbursement system. So it’s for their bills for the period ending Sept. 30.”

Ebato said she’s told the counties “to keep sending us your invoices that are due on the 15th so we can prep them for draw-down as soon as the federal government opens up.”

She added that timely reimbursements of grant expenditures could be affected if the shutdown continues.

“Normally, the county and the state entities that receive the funds, the understanding is that they front the costs and we reimburse them,” Ebato said. “So the burden of recovering those costs will be at the county and state level, and we’ve notified them that if this is a prolonged shutdown that we’ll be able to reimburse them as soon as the government is up and running.

“Hopefully, this whole impasse will end.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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