SAN ANTONIO – More than 30 smaller and mid-sized U.S. cities are losing about $170 million in federal anti-terrorism funding that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, perplexing some local officials at a time when information gleaned from Osama bin Laden's hideout suggests al-Qaida is being encouraged to attack smaller targets.
The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that narrowing the list of cities eligible for Urban Areas Security Initiative grants is part of larger budget cuts that eliminated more than $780 million in grant money from the last federal budget. New York, Washington and 29 other high-threat urban areas will still receive grants this year.
Texas took the largest hit, with Austin, El Paso and San Antonio being dropped after the cities received a combined $14.5 million in funding last year. Ten states were left with no cities receiving funds after New Orleans, Honolulu and Indianapolis were cut.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose city region will continue to receive around the same $151.5 million as years past, praised the decision to prioritize the most high-risk cities instead of thinly spreading the money around.
Texas officials were not as pleased.
"Any significant cuts to homeland security funding degrades our ability and capability to protect, respond and recover from terror attacks or natural disasters," said Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the state's top law enforcement agency.
In El Paso, just across the border from bloody Ciudud Juarez, Mexico, city officials have used about $5 million in grant funds annually to purchase equipment such as chemical detecting equipment, thermal imaging cameras and emergency response vehicles. Mayor John Cook said he hopes there will be more money to include El Paso again next year.
Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said cities no longer on the list will continue to receive federal homeland security dollars funneled down from grants given to each state. DHS officials said current intelligence reflects that terrorist groups remain focused on major U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington.
Rep. Peter King, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that the allocations "in this difficult fiscal climate" reflect his and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's "recognition that New York and Long Island remain the top target of al-Qaida and its affiliates and need continued federal funding."
New York and Washington were targets of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have traditionally received the most attention, and money, from the federal government.
In other cities and regions, including in upstate New York, the news that millions of dollars would be lost was met with vocal opposition.
"This is a glaring example of the real-world impact on western New York of the extreme cuts the new House majority is focused on," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat who serves on the Border and Maritime Security and Counterterrorism and Intelligence subcommittees. "The budget is a statement of our national priorities. Keeping our border safe, protecting a region with a history of terrorist cell activities should top the list. Yet, we have people protecting big oil at the expense of national security and that is costing this community and could cost this nation dearly."
The grant program was launched in 2003 in response to security threats in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Initially the money was available only to New York City, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston. But since 2008 more than 60 cities have been awarded the risk-based grants.
The cuts come at a worrisome time for law enforcement. After the killing of bin Laden, U.S. authorities have recovered evidence from his compound in Pakistan that the terror leader was encouraging his followers not to limit attacks to New York City, but consider other areas such as Los Angeles or smaller U.S. cities in future attacks.
In Fiscal Year 2010, 54 smaller cities were eligible to split almost $310 million in funding. Ten larger, higher-risk cities, like New York and Washington, vied for about $525 million. Thirty cities in 23 states and Washington will now share more than $662 million dollars. The lion's share, about $540 million, will be split by the 10 largest cities.
Also included in the cities losing money are Providence, R.I., and Tucson, Ariz.
In Providence, city emergency management director Peter Gaynor said he was perplexed by the decision, especially given intelligence culled from the raid in Pakistan earlier this month. The state's top emergency management official, meanwhile, called the wholesale loss of funding "a complete shock."
"It was a surprise and to some extent a slap in the face," said J. David Smith, executive director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.
In Texas, the Dallas and Houston areas remain eligible to receive around a combined $66 million this fiscal year. Cook said the funds to El Paso have made the city much more prepared since 2006. Yet he was OK with being dropped from the list this year.
"It's a little bump in the road, but we'll be fine," Cook said.
Tucson officials said the $4.5 million the region had been receiving was partly used for training and exercises. Tucson police Lt. David Azuelo said the Jan. 8 mass shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is an example of how that training paid off.
"We've been told by our partners that participated that if it wasn't for the collaborative training that we had done over the past four years that situation would have been much more difficult," Azuelo said. "We believe lives were saved."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Connecticut stands to lose about half of the Homeland Security money its cities have received in recent years.
Bridgeport and Hartford, which received a combined $5.5 million last year, are among the cities being cut from the program.
"I understand that everyone must sacrifice to bring our federal deficit under control," Lieberman said in a statement. "But I do not support cutting the budget on the back of our national security, particularly since foreign and homegrown terrorists will continue to strike us at home."
Associated Press Writers Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix, Ian MacDougall in Providence, R.I., Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, NY, Beth Fouhy in New York City and Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas contributed to this report.