Homeland Security Insider

Money Talks

I'm a little miffed at my friends in New York and Washington, D.C., for all the racket they're making. For the last several weeks, all we've heard is how New York and Washington are being "betrayed" by the Department of Homeland Security over the reallocation of Homeland Security funding that results in these two cities receiving less money this year than they received previously. Yes, funding is down overall, but they are still receiving by far the largest amounts of homeland security funding. And they should.

Under its $757 million Urban Area Security Initiative program, DHS proposes granting New York City $124 million, down from $207 million last year, and Washington, D.C., $46.5 million, down from $77.5 million last year.

Under its $757 million Urban Area Security Initiative program, DHS proposes granting New York City $124 million, down from $207 million last year, and Washington, D.C., $46.5 million, down from $77.5 million last year. In other words, New York and Washington are outraged that they'll only receive 16.5 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively, of the total grant money available. The allocations were proposed by a secret panel of 100 law enforcement officials from around the country that met at the National Fire Academy in March in Emmetsberg, Md. Funding levels are supposedly determined by a number of factors, but especially by a risk assessment. The Department of Homeland Security, though, had the final say on the amount of funding each city received.

Remarks such as New York Congressman Peter King's -- that the funding cuts are "a knife in the back" and that as far he's concerned, "the Department of Homeland Security has declared war on New York" -- are typical of what is being reported almost daily.

DHS grant programs have drawn criticism from cities both large and small. Many have felt slighted by what they maintained was a haphazard and unfair distribution plan. This year's round of grants was supposed to ensure that enough money goes to areas at highest risk of terrorist attack by employing risk scores, effectiveness tests and 17 peer review panels consisting of homeland security professionals from 47 states.

The Urban Areas Security Initiative provides money to 46 metropolitan areas. It is part of a broader $1.7 billion grant program, most of which attracted little controversy because it is divided evenly among states and territories. In addition to New York and Washington, the grant decisions included a 46-percent drop for San Diego, where several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers lived; a 61-percent decrease for Phoenix, Ariz., where I grew up and where an FBI agent suspected that terrorists were taking flight training; and a 30-percent reduction for Boston, the point of origin of the two jetliners that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Over the past five years, DHS grants to New York and Washington have totaled billions. Even after the reductions, both cities are still the two largest recipients.

The cities that received funding increases under the new allocation system fared well, but did not receive huge sums. Jacksonville, Fla., received a substantial 26-percent increase. In dollars, that translated to an additional $2.4 million. Similarly, St. Louis, Mo.'s 23.6 percent increase netted the city an additional $2.2 million above last year's funding.

The disagreement with my friends in New York and Washington is over the purpose of homeland security funding. Fighting terrorism is a major priority, but it is not our only priority. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast should have alerted us all to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security spent the past four years focused on averting the next terrorist attack and was unprepared to decisively respond to the overwhelming devastation caused by the storm. The wreckage left in Katrina's wake stretched more than 90,000 square miles -- a potentially larger area than terrorists can affect with anything, but the most lethal of weapons.

Preventing terrorism and/or mitigating the effects of terrorism are vital functions of government, so is preparing for and responding to the most likely threat -- that of a natural disaster. Had New Orleans received two or 10 times the Homeland Security grants in the years before Katrina struck, it would have made no difference, as most of it would have been underwater. Rather, had similar sums been spent to improve the emergency response capabilities of smaller communities throughout, I believe the region would have fared much better. The region, not just the city of New Orleans, needed the basic ability to communicate, to better plan, to better facilitate the evacuations, and to more quickly and more humanely respond to and care for the victims in the aftermath of destruction. These activities are an equally important responsibility of government.

Part of the problem with the Urban Area Security Initiative is semantics. Part of it is real. The purpose of the program is to provide the "resources for unique equipment, training, planning and exercise needs of select high-threat urban areas." The Department of Homeland Security has defined this within a single focus -- that of preventing and mitigating the effects of terrorism. This is understandable because the president and Congress are willing to fund the War on Terrorism, but not a "War on Obsolete Communications Equipment." Nonetheless, the threat to communities comes from natural, as well as manmade causes.

If your need is to replace obsolete radios, link the need to terrorism, and the federal government will help fund it. That is exactly what Louisville, Ky., has done. Its $9 million grant will be used to create a new communications system for first responders. In what can only be an ironic twist for New York, Kentucky cited the failure of the Fire Department of New York's radios in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attack as its justification for its grant, even though the tallest building in Louisville tops out at 35 stories. It's no wonder that Louisville's grant went up while New York's went down.

If the Homeland Security grant money is only for defeating terrorism, then New York and Washington have a point. They are the most likely targets. If this were the case, then Omaha, Neb., Milwaukee, Wis., Orlando, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., ought to get nothing. But the fact is: DHS also is preparing for and responding to natural disasters. This being the case, every community in America should be able to compete for federal funding.


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