Sometimes the most obvious of strategies can be sidetracked in the struggle to please. A government grant program begun more than two years ago by the Department of Homeland Security to finance anti-terrorism efforts in urban areas got way off track by trying to accommodate everyone with their hands out.
Only Washington belt-tightening forced Homeland Security to re-evaluate how it distributes its domestic security funding. With limited resources, the federal agency finally did what it should have done when the Urban Area Security Initiative was first announced in 2003.
Instead of doling out millions to cities based on boundaries and political considerations, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently announced a new system of funding American cities based more on risk assessment, or where terrorists are most likely to strike and cause the most damage.
What a concept. But until Congress began tightening the purse-strings on appropriations for the department's urban grants, states like Alaska and Wyoming were receiving higher per capita sums than more densely populated places like New York and California.
The urban anti-terrorism aid was initially limited to a handful of cities, including New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, but rapidly grew to at least 50 cities. Critics repeatedly argued that the money was being spread around wastefully under nebulous criteria.
One of the more egregious examples includes a $557,400 grant awarded to the city of North Pole, Alaska, population 1,700, for rescue and communication equipment. Another $500,000 was awarded to Outagamie County, Wis., with about 165,000 residents, to buy items like disaster-response trailers, chemical suits, and a bomb disposal vehicle.
Public officials from some of the smaller communities insist they deserve to be protected from terrorist threats, too, and shouldn't lose out on federal assistance.
But with less money available for the urban security grants - Congress appropriated $120 million less for the program in 2006 than for 2005 - the money must be spent more wisely and where it will be most effective based on perceived threat.
"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," said Mr. Chertoff. "It is to address the highest priorities driven by an analytic, risk-based process."
Under the new rules, grant applications will be limited to 35 metropolitan regions of the country in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The targeted areas will include 95 cities with populations of 100,000 or more.
Some urban areas, like Toledo, will be able to apply for "sustainment funding" to complete anti-terrorism measures already under way. But the department made it clear that even designated areas are not guaranteed grants.
The new system of allocating homeland security money sends a message to those with their hands out that they are not dealing with a "public works project," said the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
New York Republican Peter King said the shifting priorities also sends a message to Congress "that we are not going down the pork-barrel road. That is vital."
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