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Terror funds: More money means more danger

By
May 31, 2006


Cities fiercely competing for multimillion-dollar grants for counterterrorism programs must accept an unsettling premise along with the money: They are likely targets for terrorists.

The government wants cities to keep that in mind when they find out how much money they are receiving this year.

The Homeland Security Department is awarding $740 million to 46 communities with the nation’s highest threat risks. The money is being divvied up under a new formula the department says is based largely on intelligence and law enforcement data about threats and the possible consequences.

Three cities _ Memphis, Tenn., and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. _ qualified for a list of eligible communities this year after being passed over in 2005. Eleven others may be booted in 2007 because Homeland Security decided they face a lesser risk than others.

“It’s kind of a negative thing if you’re presumed to be a bigger target, but we already knew that,” Orlando Police Lt. Timothy Fisk, the city’s homeland security adviser, said Tuesday.

The home of Disney World and other amusement parks, Orlando is asking for $28 million from Homeland Security.

The city “has always accepted it’s a high-risk area, just because of the nature of what we have around here, with all the theme parks,” Fisk said. “There are several things we know we have to do to better prepare ourselves and get the area ready for any event that may happen _ whether it’s man-made or a natural disaster.”

The funding is part of an overall $1.7 billion Homeland Security grant program to prevent and respond to terror attacks and, to a lesser extent, other catastrophic disasters like hurricanes. The money generally pays for training and equipment for emergency first responders, and large cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago usually get the biggest cut.

Under the program, each state and U.S. territory gets some funding, this year totaling $550 million. Another $450 million will go to state public safety projects, medical responders and to help citizens prepare for disasters. Until now, the grants largely have been awarded based on cities’ populations. Homeland Security still is weighing population as a factor in the grants, but it is mostly awarding the money based on a city’s threat risk and how effectively the city will use the funds.

The grants for cities make up the largest chunk of the funding, and has always been the subject of fierce lobbying by local leaders and members of Congress. The final awards often angering many cities that feel their residents are slighted by not enough money _ or no money at all.

Tracy A. Henke, Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for grants and training programs, said the new formula will make sure the money follows the areas with the highest threats.

“The list isn’t something (to) strive to be on,” she told reporters in a briefing last week.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman calls his community “the safest city in the world.” But he’s frustrated that the city, with its booming tourist population, may be ineligible for the funds in 2007.

Las Vegas is one of 11 urban areas _ including San Diego, Oklahoma City, Tampa and Baton Rouge _ that Homeland Security could remove next year.

“The truth of the matter is, we could always make ourselves safer,” Goodman said Tuesday. Though he said he’s never heard “any reliable or credible threat” against Las Vegas, Goodman said the city may be knocked off next year because its huge tourist population wasn’t factored into Homeland Security’s decision.

“What we want to do is keep on being the safest place,” said Goodman, adding that Las Vegas applied for $50 million from the cities’ funding this year. “And that takes money.”

Money is scarce. The $740 million for cities is down from $855 million Congress provided for the cities’ counterterror efforts last year.

Since today’s high-risk city might be deemed more secure tomorrow, Henke held out hope for other urban areas seeking future terror funding.

“That information is ever-changing,” Henke said of the department’s threat analysis. “Therefore, that list is a fluid list. Just because you’re on it one year doesn’t mean you’ll be on it the next.”

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On the Net:

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/

© 2006 The Associated Press