Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Rules Set for Giving Out Antiterror Aid

The New York Times
New Rules Set for Giving Out Antiterror Aid

Facing cuts in antiterrorism financing, the Department of Homeland Security plans to announce today that it will evaluate new requests for money from an $800 million aid program for cities based less on politics and more on assessments of where terrorists are likely to strike and potentially cause the greatest damage, department officials say.

The changes to the program, the Urban Area Security Initiative, are being driven in part by a reduction in the overall pool of money for antiterrorism efforts. For 2006, Congress has appropriated $120 million less in these urban grants than for 2005.

Domestic security grants in general, including the urban area ones, have been criticized because they have sent more antiterrorism money per capita to sparsely populated states like Wyoming and Alaska than to states like New York and California.

The shift in policy, to be announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, could mean less antiterrorism aid for the 50 cities that received money last year under the program. Or, as is more likely, the department could reduce the number of cities on the list or cut grants for cities deemed at lower risk.

Until the application process is under way, it is unclear what the impact may be in cities now receiving money under the program, including New York.

Set up after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Department's local and state grant programs have drawn repeated criticism from members of Congress and budget watchdog groups because the early emphasis on spreading the money around resulted in tens of millions of dollars going to some communities where, critics said, the terrorist threat was not as urgent as elsewhere.

Examples cited in recent testimony to Congress include $557,400 awarded to North Pole, Alaska, a city of about 1,700 residents, to buy rescue and communications equipment, and $500,000 to Outagamie County, Wis., population 165,000, to buy chemical suits, rescue saws, disaster-response trailers, emergency lighting and a bomb disposal vehicle.

Mr. Chertoff, in a speech last month, said the changes he was considering would require an acknowledgment that the nation could not protect itself against all risks.

"That means tough choices," he said. "And choices mean focusing on the risks which are the greatest. And that means some risks get less focus."

Officials from some smaller American cities that have received grants said they deserved a reasonable share of the antiterrorism aid.

"We certainly are much smaller than a city like New York or Los Angeles," said Don Thorson, administrator for the grant program in Omaha.

But, Mr. Thorson said: "We still are an urban area. And we still have risks. No one can predict where a terrorist might strike. Look where Timothy McVeigh struck. It was Oklahoma City."

Omaha received $5.1 million last year, which it used to buy bomb suits and communications equipment, among other items.

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, who is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the shift properly made risk a more meaningful factor in allocating the money.

"The more risk-based they can make it, the better," Mr. King said. "It sends a message to Congress that homeland security is a serious matter, it is not a public works project, that we are not going down the pork-barrel road. That is vital."

Homeland Security officials would not offer predictions of what the likely outcome would be in terms of how many cities would see their grants eliminated or cut significantly.

The Urban Area Security Initiative represents $765 million of the $2.5 billion budgeted in the 2006 fiscal year for state and local antiterrorism programs. A separate Homeland Security grant program, which gives money directly to states, has been allocated $550 million by Congress this fiscal year. That money will still be distributed, in part, based on a formula that sets a minimum for each state. But for the first time, money not obligated by this formula will be distributed based on risk.

When the Urban Area Security grants were first announced in 2003, only seven cities were given money: New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston. But the list quickly grew to 30 cities and finally to 50 as more cities were deemed eligible for the grants.

Last year, even though the number of cities remained about the same, a much larger share of the money went to the biggest cities, with New York getting $207.5 million, compared with $49.7 million in 2004.

The system to be unveiled today evaluates applications for aid based on how well cities meet emergency preparedness standards recently established by the Homeland Security Department.

The standards include detailed steps that local and state governments would be required to take in response to potential threats, like the release of the nerve agent Sarin in office buildings or the truck bombing of a sports arena. The applications will also be ranked based on a significantly expanded database that the agency has set up to try to objectively measure the risk level in each city, department officials said. The database includes, for example, an inventory of high-profile government buildings and major structures like bridges, as well as daily ridership on a subway system and how many subway stations a city system has.

Risk is defined as a combination of the perceived threat, the vulnerability of a particular city or asset, and the consequences of an attack.

"The system before was fairly Neanderthalic," one Homeland Security official said, on condition on anonymity because he did not want to pre-empt Mr. Chertoff's announcement. "It was very, very sophomoric."

Mr. Chertoff has made clear that he expects protests when the final grant awards are announced.

"To each individual, the risks that touch him or her personally are the most urgent and of greatest concern," he said in his speech last month. "But I know you also know that as someone who has responsibility for making decisions that touch on all Americans, I have to weigh, with limited resources, the allocation of resources based on the greatest risk, and that means some people are going to be disappointed."

The prospect of increased competition for the money comes as no surprise to officials in some smaller cities.

"We anticipated there would be a point soon where Bush would be concerned about throwing so much money out there," said Samuel Simon, director of public safety in St. Louis.

The city received $7 million last year, money spent - wisely, Mr. Simon said - to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic flu outbreak or small-scale terrorist attack.