Major metro areas found ineligible for anti-terror grants

Metropolitan areas as large as Phoenix and San Diego no longer qualify for a major terrorism-preparedness grant program under the Homeland Security Department's new, more "risk-based" eligibility formula.

Homeland Security Tuesday issued a list of 44 regions that may seek a slice of the $765 million available in fiscal 2006 from the Urban Area Security Initiative, which the department said "provides resources for the unique equipment, training, planning and exercise needs of select high-threat urban areas."

Eleven of the 44 regions, however, bore an asterisk indicating they had not been found eligible for the program but could seek funds on a "sustainment" basis. The designation means the metropolitan areas could lose funding entirely in the next fiscal year, according to a footnote.

"We have carried forward 11 cities that were designated last year but not designated this year. We've carried them forward in one bridge year of eligibility," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a speech yesterday on the program. "That's designed to smooth out the transition and to give these communities an opportunity to make the case that they should get funding for this year."

"I have to be very clear about this," Chertoff added. "The purpose of the UASI program - indeed, the purpose of all Homeland Security funding - is not to generate popularity for the secretary or for the Department of Homeland Security. It is to address the highest priorities driven by an analytic, risk-based process."

The urban areas designated for sustainment funding were regions encompassing Phoenix; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Tampa, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; Baton Rouge, La.; Omaha, Neb.; Las Vegas; Buffalo, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; and Oklahoma City. At the same time, Homeland Security added Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., as new eligible areas for fiscal 2006.

According to a Homeland Security release, the 11 downgraded regions are "eligible to apply for sustainment funding in fiscal year 2006 to ensure that strategic investments made thus far can be completed and to identify projects that, if funded, would significantly reduce risk." The footnote to the list adds that the regions "will not be eligible for continued funding under the UASI program" if found ineligible for two consecutive years.

Several officials in sustainment-designated regions said they knew little about the meaning of or reasons for the designation, despite what they called repeated efforts to obtain such information from Homeland Security. They said their regions were at risk for a terrorist attack and should be eligible for the federal funding.

"We have no idea what they're talking about," said Phoenix city emergency-management chief Marcus Aurelius, who participates in managing the region's Urban Area Security Initiative programs.

"What the process was and what the folks did in DHS to create this document containing that information, I haven't the foggiest idea," Aurelius said. "They may be intending to send to us some specific guidance that just hasn't arrived yet, and it may become much more clear, but they don't consult us on these things. They just make announcements, and we try to figure out what it means."

Clark County, Nev., Emergency Management Director Jim O'Brien, whose jurisdiction includes Las Vegas, said he obtained some information about the process from Nevada state officials who had participated in a conference call with federal officials.

Like Aurelius, though, O'Brien still described Homeland Security's calculation of eligibility as opaque. Asked whether Clark County had provided the data Homeland Security used in finding Las Vegas area ineligible, he replied, "I don't know. Maybe I did."

O'Brien said federal officials told states, via contractors working on the Urban Area Security Initiative, that the calculation of risk was to be secret. "They're going to calculate the risk piece, and they're not going to tell us [on what basis], and we're going to have to demonstrate the need," he said.

The reported inclusion of nonterrorism risks in Homeland Security's calculations, O'Brien said, might have been a disadvantage for Nevada, where he said there is little risk of hurricanes or tornadoes. The Las Vegas region's importance as a tourist destination, though, creates a significant terror risk, he said.

"We're an international destination and very open and vulnerable, and the economic consequences of an incident here would be destructive of the entire state," he said. "In that regard, I kind of question it."

In his speech announcing the eligibility changes, Chertoff staunchly defended the department's calculations, which he said are becoming more risk-based and more accurate each year.

"UASI funds are not entitlements," the secretary said. "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. We have to consider changes in consequence, changes in vulnerability and changes in threat. We have to consider the fact that we anticipate that as cities get these funds and they build capabilities, they will actually reduce their vulnerabilities, and over time, that should actually remove some of those cities from the UASI list, if this is working properly."

Homeland Security did not say whether the regions designated for sustainment funding had accomplished such reductions in vulnerability. The department's ineligibility findings illustrated clearly, though, that the risk calculation was not tied directly to population: According to 2000 U.S. census figures, Phoenix and San Diego rank sixth and seventh, respectively, among the most populous U.S. cities, and 14th and 17th among the most populous metropolitan areas.

The three metropolitan areas added to the eligibility list for fiscal 2006 are considerably less populous than the largest sustainment-designated regions. Orlando ranks 28th and Memphis 44th in population among U.S. metropolitan areas. Fort Lauderdale is part of the No. 12 metropolitan region by population; that census standing, however, is mainly due to the inclusion of Miami and its suburbs in the same region. Homeland Security has found both Fort Lauderdale and Miami eligible for fiscal 2006 grants, as two separate regions.

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