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Officials in county say cuts in anti-terror funds increase risk

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Times Staff Writers

Leaders in Los Angeles County warned Wednesday that a 10% reduction in federal anti-terrorism money this year would undercut efforts to upgrade emergency operations, share intelligence and equip and train thousands of police to counter potential attacks.

The mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, joined by the area’s top law enforcement authorities, accused the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of playing politics in slashing the area’s grant this year by $8 million, saying the reduction would put one of the nation’s most crowded regions at greater risk.

The officials said the federal agency should have given greater consideration to the area’s vulnerability, noting that Los Angeles International Airport was the target of a foiled terrorist plot in late December 1999 and that 43% of the nation’s goods pass through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

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The cut will reduce the Urban Area Security Initiative grant to $72.6 million, and 20% of those funds will be taken by the state for security measures.

Officials also assailed a separate federal program that will provide just $22 million -- out of nearly $1 billion nationwide -- to coordinate law enforcement communications systems among Los Angeles County’s 89 cities.

“I want to send a clear message to Washington, D.C., and the Beltway: The practice of awarding Homeland Security dollars based on any consideration other than risk has to stop,” L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a City Hall news conference. “Arbitrary decisions and political considerations must be eliminated from this process.”

Homeland Security officials said they followed formulas that take risk, population, infrastructure and other factors into account when doling out money from the grant to the six metropolitan areas facing the greatest threat of a terrorist attack.

Those six -- including New York City, Washington, Chicago and the Bay Area -- compete annually for 55% of the urban security funds allocated by Homeland Security to combat terrorism.

“This is not an entitlement program,” said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. “We’re looking to fund programs that will build counterterrorism capabilities that reduce risk in a given area.”

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Knocke pointed out that the Los Angeles-Long Beach area has been the second-largest recipient of urban security funds since the program’s inception in 2003, collecting $304 million.

One leading member of California’s congressional delegation said that, though she was disappointed that Los Angeles County saw a drop in its anti-terrorism allocation, she was generally satisfied with the formula used to distribute the funds.

But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) called the $22-million federal grant to upgrade first responder communications “totally unacceptable.”

“The program was created to help the most at-risk regions of the country build the core communications infrastructure needed for national interoperability,” Harman said. “It was never intended to be a welfare program.”

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who last year disparaged Homeland Security officials for failing to share critical intelligence information, voiced even more pointed criticism.

“They took a billion dollars and spread it around like fertilizer, but there’s not enough fertilizer to allow anything to grow,” he said.

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Local law enforcement officials said they were still assessing the effect on their programs, noting that many would be scaled back and others eliminated.

Deputy Chief Mike Downing of the Los Angeles Police Department said a preliminary assessment showed that two-thirds of 23 anti-terrorism projects funded by the grant would have to be reduced, and several ended altogether.

The cut would hit newer programs especially hard, Downing said, including specialized communications for the department’s helicopter fleet.

Also expected to be affected are hazardous-materials training and the department’s ability to procure specialized equipment for handling chemical or biological attacks.

Downing said one of the biggest casualties would be a new city program to harness video surveillance technology in a single regional command post. The video also would have allowed police to use license plate recognition technology in terrorist-related investigations.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials said many of the county’s 18 counterterrorism programs would also suffer.

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Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Grossman said ongoing efforts for training and upgrading technology would be scaled back.

The full extent of the cuts, however, will become clearer July 25 when officials meet to discuss the issue.

New York and Washington, D.C., will enjoy large increases in their anti-terror funding this year after complaining that they were shortchanged last year.

Other winners in the anti-terror sweepstakes include Anaheim, San Diego and the Bay Area, which all will get more funding.

Anaheim spokesman John Nicoletti said his city and Orange County security officials would use their money to protect infrastructure, upgrade communications and broaden community preparedness.

“The key for us in Anaheim is that we are considered one of the safest resort destinations in the world,” Nicoletti said. “We want to maintain that status.”

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@ latimes.com

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