Explainer: The Real Deal Behind Chertoff’s New Funding Plan

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced yesterday that it has finally decided to distribute more money based on risk—not population or politics. “We are taking a giant step forward,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as he unveiled the list of 35 urban areas that will be eligible for antiterrorism funding this year at a press conference in Washington, D.C. “We’ve learned some lessons, we’ve listened to some of the critics,” Chertoff said.

For three years, big-city mayors and the 9/11 commission assailed DHS for doling out money with little regard to risk—resulting in Wyoming getting far more antiterrorism funding per person than New York. (See TIME’s investigation " How We Got Homeland Security Wrong," March 29, 2004). Since he took over as secretary in February 2005, Chertoff has promised to be smarter.

But a closer look at the new rules shows that America’s porkland-security era may not yet be over. The changes are being made to something called the Urban Area Security Initiative, a program created in 2003 to funnel homeland security money to high-risk cities. This program was always designed to target money based on risk, and it’s only a portion of the total $2.5 billion that DHS will give states in 2006. When it was first created, only seven cities made the “high threat” list. But as the funding rose, so did the number of cities.

Now, Chertoff is claiming that the formula is much better. “It’s going to be more robust, it’s going to be more precise,” he said. So this year, 35 metropolitan areas, including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, will get some portion of the total $765 million. Most of those cities got money last year, too. Only Memphis, Tenn., is new to the list. But 11 areas that got money in 2005 are now essentially on probation; they will get more funding only if they convince DHS that they need more money to finish projects they’ve already started.

“In the end, I view this really as fine-tuning,” says Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “This was risk-based all along. Maybe now it’s a little more risk-based, maybe not.” Now, as always, the formula is a secret. We just know what Chertoff told us: that it takes into account the threats and vulnerabilities facing a given city, in addition to the consequences of a possible attack. We have no idea why Phoenix and Las Vegas are now on probation and could lose funding altogether—while Milwaukee and Indianapolis remain in good standing.

And in the end, the final allocation will not be based solely on risk. It will also be based on need, DHS says. It’s still unclear what this means: does it mean, for example, that cities that have done a poor job preparing for attacks in the past will get more money, since their need is greater?

In any case, the exact dollar amounts for each city will not be announced until May at the earliest—later than in past years. That means cities will not know how much they are getting until the year is almost halfway over. And regardless, the total pot is $120 million less than it was in 2005.

But Chertoff will soon have another chance to prove himself—when he announces how DHS will allocate the rest of its homeland security funding to states for 2006. Congress has once again mandated that each state get a baseline amount, whether it needs it or not. But DHS has significant discretion to spend the rest more wisely. In other words, revolution TBD.