Rules for Homeland Security Funds Revamped

Correction Jan. 4, 2006

This story said that 109 cities are eligible to compete for homeland security funds. The correct number is 106.

The Department of Homeland Security says it's changing the way it hands out hundreds of millions of dollars to help big cities protect themselves against terrorist attacks. The agency says it wants to reduce the amount of money spent on questionable projects and to target funds where they're needed most.

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The Department of Homeland Security says it's changing the way it hands out hundreds of millions of dollars to help big cities protect themselves against a terrorist attack. The agency says it wants to reduce the amount of money spent on questionable projects and to target funds where they're needed most. NPR's Pam Fessler has details.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

For the past few years there have been many complaints about Homeland Security money being spent on things such as air-conditioned garbage trucks and biohazard suits for small fire departments. The Homeland Security Department's been trying to change that, and today Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that $765 million will be used this year to fund crucial security projects in the nation's 35 most vulnerable urban areas.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The fact of the matter is our security is much too important to be determined with funding decisions that are driven by arbitrary formulas or political formulas or a desire to give everybody a little bit of something.

FESSLER: That said, the change doesn't affect hundreds of millions of dollars in other Homeland Security grants, which are handed out to every state. But it does represent a shift toward helping more high-risk areas, such as New York and Los Angeles. Chertoff says the agency is especially interested in regions with dense populations, a lot of vulnerable facilities, such as chemical plants, and good regional coordination.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Anybody who looked at what happened, for example, in Katrina and Rita understood that even if the hurricane was directed at a particular jurisdiction, the effects were felt within the entire region.

FESSLER: And he says the same could be true in a terrorist attack. The department will give special consideration to projects that improve regional communications, the ability to detect possible weapons of mass destruction and emergency medical capabilities. But the new regional approach has met with mixed reviews. San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales says he's disappointed that his city, which got its own $6 million grant last year, will now have to apply for funds as part of a region that includes the entire San Francisco Bay area.

Mayor RON GONZALES (San Jose): To take San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose and merge them all into one and, in addition, all the, you know, clearly hundreds of smaller cities around us makes no sense. We have different types of security issues here in San Jose than San Francisco may have.

FESSLER: He's worried that his number-one priority, protecting high-tech facilities, might have to take a backseat to other regional concerns. And, in fact, more cities will now be competing for less money. Last year 50 cities split $855 million in Urban Area Security Grants; this year 109 cities will be eligible. But Congress appropriated about $110 million less. That's one reason the administration says it's important to make sure that the money goes where it's needed most. Ft. Worth, Texas, Emergency Management coordinator Juan Ortiz isn't worried about the changes. He says his city is already working with nearby Dallas and surrounding communities to improve security. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This year 106 cities will be eligible for Urban Area Security Grants, not 109.]

Mr. JUAN ORTIZ (Ft. Worth, Texas, Emergency Management Coordinator): There is a risk when you have more communities involved that you're watering down the dollars to the local communities. But I think that our region probably has a good advantage that we have been working with each other for quite a long time now and that we have established lines of communications with each other, and we better understand our needs.

FESSLER: In fact, he says regional officials are meeting today to start talking about how to collectively apply for the funds. The urban areas have 60 days to make their proposals. The awards will be announced later this year. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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