Homeland security grants going to high-risk cities

WASHINGTON—Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, seeking to avert a repeat of last year's furor over counter-terrorism grants to U.S. cities, announced Friday that New York, Washington and four other "highest-risk" metro areas will receive $411 million to subsidize their efforts to guard against terrorist attacks.

Thirty-nine other metro areas will compete for another $336 million this year. In all, the funding for the 45 cities is a $36 million increase over 2006. The 50 states will get an additional $919 million in federal grants, $41 million less than they received last year.

Last year, Chertoff's agency faced vocal protests after it cut funding by 40 percent to the two cities considered al-Qaida's top targets: New York lost $80 million and Washington lost $31 million after Congress slashed the Department of Homeland Security's grant money by $700 million.

In divulging how his agency would distribute this year's nearly identical pot of money—some $1.7 billion—to cities and states, Chertoff said that his agency had "evaluated a lot of constructive criticism" and accepted some of it.

"The big picture is worrying about how do we protect the most people from the greatest risks most of the time," he told a news conference. "This year's guidance, hopefully, provides greater transparency and better justification to the American people."

Reaction was mixed.

Deputy New York Mayor Edward Skyler said that city officials won't know the department's funding decisions for months, but "are optimistic that our concerns are being heard."

Skyler praised the agency's decision to allow cities to spend as much as 25 percent of their grant money to help subsidize ongoing counterterrorism and intelligence operations. New York, which has the nation's most extensive police-run, counter-terror effort, has for years sought federal funding for "the boots on the ground that can deter attacks," Skyler said.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting delegate to Congress who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said she was "outraged" by last year's cuts and is dismayed that the program has sent much money to cities that face lower terrorism risks than obvious targets such as New York and Washington.

The same six metro areas as last year were in the top tier. In addition to New York and Washington, they're San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Sacramento and San Diego were listed in 2005 as cities likely to be dropped from the program, but they remain eligible after a lobbying push led by California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui, who represents Sacramento, responded to Chertoff's announcement by introducing a bill to stop the agency from making what she called arbitrary funding decisions and allow the nation's 100 most populous cities to apply for grants. Matsui cited preliminary findings in a General Accountability Office report that criticized Homeland Security for randomly assigning risk values and skewing the awards.

Four cities were dropped from the grant program: Louisville, Ky., Baton Rouge, La., Omaha, Neb., and Toledo, Ohio. They were replaced by Tucson, Ariz., Providence, R.I., El Paso, Texas, and Norfolk, Va.

Chertoff said that Norfolk was added because of its extensive military facilities and El Paso because of its proximity to the Mexican border.

One notable change in the department's approach this year calls for city governments in metropolitan areas to apply for grants together, even if they're in different states. For example, New York and Newark, N.J., would apply jointly. Chertoff said that way they won't both seek funds to secure the George Washington Bridge that connects New York and New Jersey.