Los Angeles and other high-profile urban areas could get more federal aid as a result of changes in the way the Department of Homeland Security allocates funds to train and equip police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders for possible terrorist attacks.
The plan, announced Tuesday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, will shift more funds to high-risk areas and away from areas where attacks are considered less likely.
At the same time, other changes, along with an overall drop in federal aid levels, are stirring concern among some Los Angeles-area officials about the long-term effect of the new approach to distributing funds.
The plan is the latest round in a running battle between the Bush administration and Congress. The administration favors allocating anti-terrorism grants based on risk, thus favoring major urban centers on the East and West coasts. Congress has insisted on sharing aid more broadly, including funds for such towns as North Pole, Alaska, where the threat of attack is considered minimal.The debate was complicated by the nation's experience with Hurricane Katrina, which served as a reminder that terrorism is not the only threat facing emergency responders and that natural disasters could affect areas that have little to fear from terrorists.
The new approach, which applies only to Urban Areas Security Initiative grants, creates new regional groupings for the distribution of funds, including three in California. Another federal grant program remains unchanged; it allots each state a guaranteed minimum, according to a formula devised by Congress, and then distributes the rest on a risk basis.
"This is a step in the right direction," said Jack Weiss, a Los Angeles City Council member whose district encompasses Los Angeles International Airport. "At the same time, I'm always concerned when Washington wants us to create new bureaucracies to cope with the paperwork."
Many of the changes reflect an effort to make dwindling funds go further; grant money for the Urban Areas Security Initiative has dropped from $855 million last year to $765 million for 2006.
Though the program has always been risk-based, the department said, it is putting a greater emphasis on risk by limiting the number of eligible areas.
Previously spread among 50 cities, grant eligibility will now be limited to 35 regions that Chertoff identified as the "communities facing the greatest risk and demonstrating the greatest need in order to receive the highest return in our nation's security."
Some cities, such as San Diego, are being phased out for eligibility in the program after being given funding for a "bridge" year to complete ongoing projects. Those communities will still be able to receive other funding and could continue to receive the urban areas grants if they can demonstrate a need.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he was disappointed, noting that his city has a major seaport, the busiest international border in the nation and the largest concentration of U.S. military forces in the world.
Sanders, who took office last month, blamed his predecessors for not doing a better job in lobbying for funds and vowed to discuss the situation with Chertoff when he visits San Diego on Thursday.
Chertoff said Tuesday that he expected complaints. "This is not a popularity contest," he said of the grant program.
He said that his department's ability to assess risk had become increasingly more sophisticated and that federal officials had used a database of more than 30 million spreadsheets to calculate risk matrices -- which measure an area's potential targets, including bridges, chemical and nuclear plants or hospitals, its vulnerabilities and the consequences of an attack.
Los Angeles-area first responders applauded the move to put more emphasis on risk.
"Hopefully we'll see more" funding, said Garden Grove Fire Department Capt. Tim Sawyer. "Instead of throwing money out there to everyone equally," he said, funding decisions would be made "more appropriate" by emphasizing risk profiles.
In a further move to ensure that only deserving projects are funded, the Homeland Security Department is requiring the 35 regions to submit a list of projects they would undertake with the grant money. The projects must pass review by a national panel to receive funding. In the past, all eligible areas received funds.
Many L.A. officials praised the move to create regional blocs that would apply for funding as a team. Three California regional groupings have been created: one encompassing Anaheim and Santa Ana; one for the Bay Area, including San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland; and one combining Los Angeles and Long Beach. The ports of L.A. and Long Beach handle 42% of the nation's trade and represent a significant potential target.
"If you look at the ports, the difference between the two is a political jurisdictional line -- it's not a geographic difference, it's not a difference in the way trade operates or where the population is really distributed," Chertoff said, explaining the decision to combine Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The move to create regional blocs came from the lessons learned from Katrina, when the Gulf Coast was so badly damaged that surrounding areas were pulled in to respond, Chertoff said. "We have to consider consequences, vulnerabilities and threats in the context of a natural region," he said.
But Cmdr. Mike Grossman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department cautioned that Homeland Security's regional combinations might not mesh well with California's standardized emergency management system, which is organized by county. He pointed out that the federal agency has made Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks part of the Los Angeles-Long Beach area although they are part of Ventura County and its emergency response network.
"The configuration that has come out is not consistent with the structure the state has, which causes organizational issues," Grossman said.
Maurice Suh, L.A. deputy mayor for domestic security and public safety, said he didn't expect coordination with other jurisdictions to be an issue.
"We view this in a very positive light," he said. The Department of Homeland Security "has made clear to us that funding initiatives in the Southern California area is a priority. In our view, Los Angeles is the leader in terms of assets and security concerns in the area."
Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego and Christian Berthelsen in Costa Mesa contributed to this report.