Making the cut
Several large urban areas are reeling from a shock they received in early January when the federal government revealed they could not apply for grants to fund homeland security planning in 2006. When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that $765 million is available in 2006 for its Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), it also unveiled a new risk-based formula that was used to identify 35 urban areas eligible to apply for the grants.
Under the formula, cities such as Buffalo, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego, which were eligible for the grants in 2005, are no longer considered “high threat” areas, the department says. The announcement sparked strong criticism from federal, state and local officials, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who promises to fight the new structure and to restore funding for Las Vegas and other cities.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the formula at a press conference in early January where he announced the 2006 grants, saying the UASI program’s purpose “is to address the highest priorities driven by an analytic, risk-based process.” Each year, he said, the department has to “consider changes in consequence, changes in vulnerability and changes in threat.”
New regional areas defined
With the objective to protect certain high-threat urban areas during terrorist attacks that involve weapons of mass destruction, as well as to enhance selected mass transit authorities’ protection of critical infrastructure, the UASI program funds equipment, training, planning and exercise needs. DHS says that more than $2.1 billion has been allocated through the UASI program since fiscal year 2003.
DHS and other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, award additional grants to state and local governments for homeland security needs, such as those of first responders and public health officials, and to fund infrastructure security and other public safety activities. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, states and territories have received $8.6 billion in homeland security grants.
This year, DHS will combine cities that share boundaries, creating regional urban areas for the UASI program. That approach, Chertoff said at the press conference, makes sense after looking at the response to Hurricane Katrina. In that case, he says, “the whole region had to chip in, in terms of assisting.” The department learned “we have to consider consequences, vulnerabilities and threats in the context of a natural region, where the threat is focused and where the impact is going to be felt.”
To receive funding, state, city and county officials must submit grant applications together with detailed plans for security enhancements that will address the regions’ terrorist risks. But local officials say that will be difficult because the federal government has decided not to release specific regional risks. And, eligible areas are not guaranteed funding after submitting applications, according to DHS officials. Applications were due March 2, and DHS says it will review and approve all applications no later than May 31.
Reiterating the new risk-based approach when announcing the 2006 round of grants, Chertoff said DHS would implement that strategy by “looking at where the major risks are and allocating our priorities accordingly.” Measures used to assess an area’s threats include the potential consequences of an attack and the vulnerabilities and other threats to that area, according to the department. Chertoff said federal officials also looked at factors specific to particular regions, such as population, whether an area is close to an international border and the presence of critical infrastructure. The 35 urban areas eligible in 2006 encompass 95 cities with populations of 100,000 or more.
Chertoff defends the department’s choices by saying the program addresses the highest priorities, reminding city and county officials that UASI funds are not entitlements. “Once you get a UASI designation, it doesn’t mean that a city has it for the rest of the decade, or the next 20 years. Each year we have to look afresh at what the risks are,” he said at the press conference. In addition, 11 urban areas that were part of the UASI program in 2005 are eligible this year to apply for sustainment funding, which the department says is to make sure existing projects can be completed.
One of the urban communities eligible for sustainment funding is the Las Vegas metropolitan area. That, however, does not satisfy Nevada officials who say the federal government ignored important risk factors and deprived certain urban centers of funds to protect people and infrastructure from an attack.
Reid says that for places like Las Vegas that have a large number of visitors, the federal government’s risk scheme should consider tourists in the population numbers. He is working on legislation that would change the grant system to make sure tourists and other transient populations are adequately considered in the risk analysis, according to his spokeswoman Sharyn Stein.
Other members of Congress are trying to secure more funding for certain areas. In a letter sent in early January to Buffalo area officials, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., says she will urge federal homeland security officials to reconsider the risks present in Erie and Niagara counties and will work to ensure more homeland security funding. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also wrote Chertoff in a Jan. 10 letter, saying that “the absence of San Diego and Sacramento from this year’s high-risk category has caused me to question how your department has calculated the risks these cities face.”
In 2006, the federal government calculated the risks of urban areas to determine eligibility, as opposed to states, which determined risk factors in past years, says Jim O’Brien, director of the Clark County, Nev., Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Because the department will not release that risk information to local officials, the ability for cities and counties to meet some application requirements is more difficult, O’Brien says.
This year, DHS requires cities and counties to include investment justifications in their grant applications, identifying needs and outlining the intended security enhancement plans to be addressed. “When we’re applying for grants, our needs are supposed to be expressed in a manner that shows how you can reduce your risk,” O’Brien says. “My problem is that if we don’t know our risk, how are we supposed to do that?” O’Brien says DHS officials have only told Clark County officials that the information is secret.
The investment justification has to be very thorough, he says. For example, officials must specify who will complete each project in the plan. “The days of just ordering equipment for specific fire departments are long gone,” O’Brien says. “You have to look at application and … look at the whole plan. And that plan must enhance security statewide.”
The other mystery is how DHS calculated risk to determine which urban areas are eligible, O’Brien says. “The federal government picked an arbitrary number [of high risk urban areas]. Who picked that number? Why not 45 areas?”
Better use of resources
Not everyone, however, is critical of the new formula. A Dallas Morning News editorial, for example, praises DHS for devising a way to distribute grants to high-threat urban areas that will decrease inefficient spending. It cited the department’s previous lack of funding oversight, which resulted in more disaster preparedness grant funding for Puerto Rico than in 23 states in 2002. The Dallas region is on the list of those eligible for UASI funds in 2006.
Even O’Brien says there is a bright side to the new DHS requirements. “This is historic, in Nevada anyway. We have gotten stakeholders from all over the state to talk about where we need to enhance our response capabilities, and to look at communication, etc., to figure out how to help each other,” he says. “Whether we get funded or not, what we will have is a comprehensive package of strengths and weaknesses and plans for enhancing those that can be given to local officials to use in the local budget process.”
However, many officials are concerned about the lack of federal funding in general for the homeland security needs of states, cities and counties. The amount of funding in 2006 for all types of grants for homeland security needs has dropped significantly from fiscal year 2005 levels, especially in the UASI program, according to the National Association of Counties. Congress approved $860 million for UASI grants in 2005, but this year, the program has received $765 million.
DHS funding is a huge concern for cities, says George Parks, executive director of the Cheyenne-based Wyoming Association of Municipalities. “In general, homeland security funding has been declining everywhere,” he says. “Things we have been able to do in past years, we want to be able to do as much of.” For example, he says localities have used much of the federal funding for equipment for first responders, such as communication equipment.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., also has expressed concern about the Bush administration’s declining assistance for state and local homeland security needs. “In the last two years, the Bush administration has cut homeland security grant funding by 40 percent, even while we remain under one or another form of alert for a terrorist attack,” Lieberman said at a press conference in early January.
Lieberman also said the White House should “reverse this trend and fund the nation’s homeland security needs with the seriousness they deserve,” adding he intends to fight for those needs in the current congressional session. According to Lieberman’s spokeswoman Leslie Phillips, he is writing letters to the chairmen of the Senate budget and appropriations committees requesting more funds. In addition, the senator expressed his concerns to Department of Homeland Security officials at a March 1 hearing on the department’s budget, Phillips says.
In the meantime, communities are trying to determine the best way to work with the new UASI grant requirements. O’Brien points out that developing a justification and security enhancement plan will take a lot of resources and time, but will not ensure funding. “We have already had three days of meetings and will have two more for 79 people, not to mention the work that subgroups have been doing in between meetings to develop those products,” he says. “So it’s a lot of time and money for an unknown pay off.”
Meredith Preston is Washington correspondent for American City & County.
Where will the money go? DHS’s riskiest cities
• Newly eligible in 2006 for UASI program
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
• Eligible for sustainment funding
Baton Rouge, La.
• Eligible for 2006 UASI program
Anaheim/Santa Ana, Calif.
Bay Area, Calif.
Jersey City/Newark, N.J.
Kansas City, Mo.
Los Angeles/Long Beach Area, Calif.
National Capital Region (Washington, D.C.)