The San Diego region may lose millions of dollars in federal anti-terrorism grants, after the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to trim the city from a list of at-risk metropolitan areas.
The federal government has awarded $36.4 million to San Diego in the last three years through the post-Sept. 11 Urban Area Security Initiative. It’s been spent throughout the region on a variety of training and equipment, including protective suits for firefighters, respirators and radiological detection equipment.
The DHS will continue funding 35 metropolitan areas that are most at-risk, Secretary Michael Chertoff said, but 11 cities, including San Diego and Sacramento, will lose their eligibility after 2006.
They’ll also compete for a pool of money that’s about $65 million smaller than last year.
The news shocked local emergency services officials, who have spent the last month developing a five-year, $200 million proposal for the anti-terrorism money.
Now they’re scrambling to plan ways to convince federal officials to keep the area off the cut list.
“I’m just appalled. I’m flabbergasted,” said Deborah Steffen, director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services. “How do you justify saying Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Columbus, Ohio, are hotbeds of terrorism and have huge threats and San Diego does not? I don’t get it.”
The federal government has awarded more than $2.1 billion in grants during the last three years but has been widely criticized for the way the money has been distributed.
More money has been spent per person in Wyoming ($7) than in California ($1), said Tim Ransdell, the executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, a Washington think tank that provides independent analysis to state leaders.
The grants are “not party favors to be distributed as widely as possible,” Chertoff said at a news conference announcing the decision. “We’re going to focus on your ability to show highest risk and your ability to show you can put the money to good use.”
While the feds have a formula to compute risk , culled from CIA and FBI threat reports , it isn’t yet being shared with local officials. Steffen questioned the political motivation to keep that information confidential.
Steffen said she believed the federal government planned to award grants based solely on the threat of terrorism, despite its post-Hurricane Katrina acknowledgment that jurisdictions need to be prepared for all hazards , including fires, earthquakes and hurricanes.
“When you stop the flow of the federal dollars for these short- to long-term programs, that means you’re not building up your capability to respond,” said August F. “Augie” Ghio, director of the San Diego Office of Homeland Security. “I think it does make us more vulnerable. That’s a serious concern.”
Ghio said the city, which coordinates the Urban Area Security Initiative locally, had become reliant on the money to boost the area’s capability to respond to terrorism.
San Diego will still be eligible to apply this year, and Ghio said the city had expected to receive $15 million to $25 million.
The California Institute’s Ransdell said there may be a silver lining. If the risk-based guidelines are applied to other major Homeland Security grant programs under criticism, he said San Diego could recoup some of its losses.
There’s a potential for some mitigation, Ransdell said, though “that may not be a huge comfort to an area that’s standing on the precipice.”
The topic was a high priority for several local officials , San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, and Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego , who were scheduled to meet with Chertoff on Jan. 5.
“I’m sure they had a thought process,” Davis spokesman Aaron Hunter said. “We’re not sure what it is. And that’s what Susan’s going to ask.”
In an e-mail, Rep. Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said: “San Diego is home to many valuable national security assets. It’s important that the necessary funding levels are secured to maintain our current homeland security strategy.”