Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
There were some long faces in out-of-the-way places a couple of months ago when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the new list of jurisdictions eligible for Urban Areas Security Initiative grants, which offer aid to local governments for anti-terrorism efforts. Although the program has been around since 2003, this year marked a new and much more rigorous approach to giving out the money.
The new DHS policy is more of a risk-based and regional approach to funding domestic anti-terrorism efforts (versus the previous formula, in which population was a key criterion and some of the money was spread around more on the basis of politics than the need for preparedness). According to Chertoff, the new list of grant recipients targets "consequences, vulnerabilities and threats focused on a region-wide basis." In all, 35 regions in 29 states and the District of Columbia, encompassing nearly 100 cities, are eligible for the money. But numerous jurisdictions that were previously eligible came off the list.
The risk-based approach has long been advocated by specialists in homeland security. If anything, most of them say, it is overdue. "It should have happened a long time ago," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, although he says he understands why a program like it couldn't be crafted overnight. "It's a learning process," he says.
"You can't create a program like this in a nanosecond."
What we've learned above all, Cilluffo says, is that "we have limited resources, unlimited vulnerability and a mobile, adaptable adversary." That being the case, there's just no alternative to tough-minded picking and choosing.
But decisions that struck DHS as tough-minded and rational struck quite a few local governments as foolish. Rhode Island's homeland security director pointed out that the state has set up six hazardous- material teams with DHS money and asked how defunding those could possibly be a good idea. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman went ballistic. How, he asked, could the 24th-largest city in the country, one that hosts 40 million visitors a year and contains 12 of the world's 13 largest hotels, not qualify?
According to DHS officials, the process for carving out the 35 metropolitan regions was rigorous and painstaking. Massive amounts of data related to potential threats and potential scope of damage were analyzed, with studies made of everything from the London rail and bus bombings to Hurricane Katrina.
Mayor Goodman and some of the other critics have a point. It's impossible ever to get a vulnerability and consequences-based funding formula absolutely right. You can't be absolutely sure who needs disaster money until a disaster occurs. But the grant policy can at least be reevaluated and updated frequently, and DHS insists that process is already underway. According to David Kaufman, deputy director for preparedness programs at DHS, the entire list of regions will, in fact, be reviewed annually. "Risk is not static," says Kaufman, "and threat information changes fast."
Still, as the dust settles in the wake of the newly announced grant policy, it's important to point out a couple of things, lest there be a temptation to return to the older, less discriminate approach. First, Urban Areas Security Initiative grants are not the only form of anti-terrorism money in the federal budget. Two other state and local grant programs actually provide more money than the $765 million in UASI funds. Second, DHS is offering "bridge" money to some places that didn't make this year's cut but still need help to continue existing initiatives.
Most important, though, is the fact that it is well past time for policy makers in Washington to recognize that Natrona County, Wyoming, has very little in common with Los Angeles County, California, when it comes to the likelihood of terrorist attacks. And for all the criticism that's been leveled at DHS over the past year, the new approach to the UASI grants is an important step in the right direction--toward a more rational approach to keeping the country safe.