Tougher rules for cities receiving security funds

The Department of Homeland Security announces changes in how grants are distributed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to distributing highly prized homeland-security dollars to cities across the country, politics has ruled. But no longer.

This week Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that even cities at the highest risk of a terrorist attack will have to prove exactly why they need homeland-security grants and demonstrate how the money will improve the nation's overall preparedness. It's a kind of "show me the risk" approach that critics such as the 9/11 commission have long said was lacking.

The new policy, which applies to almost $800 million in grants to at-risk urban areas, is being greeted with cautious optimism by homeland-security policy experts and state and local emergency managers alike. Some, however, particularly from small and medium-sized cities like Omaha, Neb., are concerned that the approach could end up eroding gains they've made in overhauling their emergency response capabilities.

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Still, as 9/11 recedes further into the past, and federal budget woes cut into the availability of funds, experts say it's time for the nation to prioritize based on risk.

"The purpose of all homeland-security funding is not to generate popularity ... for the Department of Homeland Security, it is to address the highest priorities driven by an analytic, risk-based process," said Secretary Chertoff at a Washington briefing on Tuesday.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it became evident to many US lawmakers that the nation had neglected its local civil defenses. "[Spending] was woefully inadequate to create a national homeland security system," according to a study prepared by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. So with the World Trade Center still smoldering, Congress moved to fill the gap. Between 2001 and 2003, spending on homeland security increased 240 percent, leveling off at about $40 billion in 2004. To dole out the money to state and local authorities as fast as possible, lawmakers used a simple population-based formula. But that led to wide disparities, such as Wyoming getting three times as much per capita as New York.

The lack of a coherent set of priorities, critics charge, also led to the now-infamous expenditures on Segways, leather jackets, and homeland-security rap songs.

"As we move further from 9/11 and see that the money has often been used unwisely ... it is very necessary to put people to the test," says Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

To address such concerns, Congress has tweaked how it distributes funds. In 2002, it created the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) program, targeted specifically for cities at risk. When the first UASI grants were given out in 2003, only seven large cities were eligible. Last year, due to political pressure, the list had topped 50.

Under the plan announced this week, urban areas will be assessed as regions. Thirty-five have been identified as eligible. Another 11, including cities like Omaha and Oklahoma City that got funding in the past, will be eligible this year, but will probably be phased out next. And even cities at the highest risk will have to prove why they need each dollar. For instance, last year Illinois and Chicago were granted a combined total of $96 million. Under the new formula, Chicago will have to compete with other cities for funds, and the state, under a different program, is guaranteed only about $7 million.

"There's some uncertainty out there," says Mike Chamness, chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force in Springfield. "But I believe it's the right direction and that Illinois is well positioned to compete."

Officials in some smaller states like Nebraska are less sanguine. Nebraska has focused on ensuring its emergency responders can all talk on the same radio system - a top priority named by the 9/11 commission. Last year, the state and the city of Omaha received about $24 million, according to Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. This year, he expects to receive about a quarter of that. "We're now facing reduced funding, and my concern is that [we won't be] able to complete and sustain the programs we've put in place."

Terrorism experts like Mr. Greenberger contend that Omaha does have a good case: "The way to make the biggest statement is to do it someplace out in the hinterland to make the point that no one is safe," he says. "But places should have to justify their inclusion in fund appropriations."

Others add that it's crucial the Department of Homeland Security keep analyzing and adjusting where it spends its money.

"We have limited resources, unlimited vulnerability, and a flexible adversary," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There are many cities that can make a good justification, but our limited resources have to be spent wisely."

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