WASHINGTON – Facing scathing criticism over reduced anti-terror grants for Washington, D.C., and New York City, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday defended his department's handling of the funding saying the program is designed to avoid political influence in favor of reducing the threat of terrorism.
"I would hate to see us get to the point that we are ... so driven by the need to respond to pressure from people — who may honestly be disappointed — that we can't make decisions that are based on risk funding. It's not going to be enough for a community to say, 'We're the No. 1 risk, give us money,'" Chertoff said.
The overall amount of money distributed by Chertoff's department was $710 million, about $119 million less than last year. The money is to be distributed among 46 cities, some of which didn't receive any money last year. The grants mainly are to go toward preventing and responding to terrorist attacks, but also to help respond to natural disasters. The department said the total does not reflect an additional $25 million for nonprofit groups and other minor costs.
Officials from the two targets of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have voiced their dismay over the funding levels. New York City's share decreased by $83 million; funding for the national capital region — including the District of Columbia and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia — decreased from $77.5 million last year to $46 million this year.
But Chertoff, comparing counterterror funding to investing in a home, told a group gathered at the Brookings Institution in Washington that the funding grants should be looked at as building blocks rather than singular amounts of money.
Responding to an audience question, he said, people looking at the numbers need to consider that some places haven't received any money, and that New York shouldn't necessarily get attention over other places.
"I think that is an overly simple way to go about your interests," Chertoff said.
But several lawmakers have expressed their outrage.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the influential House Committee on Homeland Security, on Thursday promised hearings into the matter, and slammed department officials in an interview with FOX News.
King said that he spoke with Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman, who told him that the funding reduction for New York might have been due to application errors.
"I don't accept it. ... I'm saying that they ranked the NYPD's counterterrorism efforts in the bottom 25 percent of the country, when no one else even comes close to them," King said.
"This was, for whatever reason — and I will be holding full investigations to find out what happened here — either it's incompetency, or it's a bias, or it's a combination of the both," King said.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., on Wednesday released a statement saying the cuts were "outrageous," and that she would ask her colleagues Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to also hold hearings about the funding methods.
"These cuts demonstrate this administration's continued failure to grasp the unique security threats that face New York," Clinton said.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams called the actions "shortsighted."
"I firmly believe that this area could be attacked again at any time, and now is not the time to back off on our efforts to train first responders, prepare our hospitals or harden our defenses," Williams said in a statement
Security analyst and GlobalOptions CEO Neil Livingstone told FOX News said there is a valid point to be made over how each of the cities achieved their status on the funding list, and whether it was a matter of home-state, pet projects often referred to negatively as pork-barrel spending.
"One of the things that we're concerned about is that there is a lot of pork in the Department of Homeland Security, and that members of Congress have all lobbied to get their cities designated as high risk targets because they want to get some of that pork," Livingstone said.
One of the core recommendations in the Sept. 11 Commission report released in 2004, said to base federal emergency preparedness funding solely on "risks and vulnerabilities."
The report said at the time that New York and Washington should remain at the top of the funding priorities, but money "should not remain a program for general revenue sharing or pork-barrel spending."
Homeland Security officials are defending the allocations.
"At the end of the day our job is to make sure that we apply resources in an appropriate manner across the full breadth of this nation so that we get the maximum benefit out of those dollars," Foresman told reporters in Washington.
State and local officials also need to budget for disaster preparations, Foresman said, calling the federal grants "designed to help us address the extraordinary, not the ordinary."
The money generally pays for training and equipment for emergency first responders.
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.
Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Tracy A. Henke said the biggest share of the dollars still would go to the nation's largest cities, with New York City winning the largest share — $124 million, down from $207 million in 2005. Officials said the money was to help cities grapple with catastrophic natural disasters and terrorists alike, but hurricane-ravaged New Orleans will receive half of what it got last year: $4.6 million, down from $9.3 million.
Still, several cities saw boosted bottom lines, including three that didn't get any money last year. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., won $9.9 million for 2006 after last year's amount that drew fire from Rep. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., who believed the town had been snubbed over higher-profile Miami.
"I'd been telling Homeland Security, 'We want a divorce,'" said Shaw, who represents the Fort Lauderdale area. "And we got it. ... As far as grants go, I think this is a very good result."
The funding is part of an overall $1.7 billion Homeland Security grant program. 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.
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 anger many officials who feel residents of their cities are slighted by not getting enough money — or none whatsoever.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.