Jan. 4--Which city is at the greatest risk for calamity -- St. Louis, Denver, Memphis or Kansas City?
The Department of Homeland Security says it will spend the next six months trying to answer that question, rating safety risks in those four metropolitan areas and 42 others. At stake are millions of dollars in federal homeland security spending.
Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff introduced a "risk-based strategy" for passing out $765 million in Urban Area Security Initiative grants.
His department also warned 11 cities receiving those UASI funds that they could be cut out entirely next year unless they can show a need for their share of the funding. Those 11 cities included San Diego; Tampa, Fla.; Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City and Phoenix -- but not Kansas City.
One recent study, however, suggests the Kansas City area could face a funding challenge under the revised formula.
In November the Rand Corp. rated the "aggregated risk estimate" for 47 cities, using criteria identical to those proposed by the department: vulnerability, threat and consequence. New York led the list, followed by Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Kansas City was 45th -- only Minneapolis and Pittsburgh had lower risk levels.
"These grant decisions can be very subjective," said Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer. "Do I think we have the same threat as New York and our capital? The answer is no, but we are sure not like Casper, Wyoming, with little or no threat."
Dyer says he fears a grant competition with other metropolitan areas, but concedes a risk-based formula may be more equitable.
Last year the metropolitan area received $8.1 million in UASI grants to purchase hazmat vehicles, chemical suits, radios, bomb squad equipment, even radiation detectors.
The funding also paid for training and establishment of a "terrorist interdiction unit" in the Kansas City Police Department.
"This program is really important," said Marlene Nagel, with the Mid-America Regional Council. "It helps strengthen relationships across law enforcement, health, fire and emergency response." MARC coordinates security spending across the metropolitan area, and its homeland security committee met Tuesday to discuss the new funding guidelines.
Nagel insists risk-based funding doesn't necessarily mean a reduction for Kansas City. "We could get less, but we could get more," she said.
Dyer is less upbeat. "I am worried," he said. "We don't face an obvious terrorist threat. But if you leave us unprepared, we could become a soft target. We're a transportation hub and a communications hub."
Despite fears of losing federal money in 2006, local officials concede they still haven't spent all of their UASI grants from previous years.
Since the program began in 2003, the metropolitan area has received $31 million, Nagel said. Of that, nearly $10 million remains unspent or uncommitted.
Some big-ticket items paid for with UASI money are not yet on the streets. A new bomb squad truck was just delivered Tuesday morning. A mobile command center is weeks away from being operational. A new rescue truck, which cost more than $300,000, is still eight weeks away from deployment.
Dyer blamed the slow arrival of some of the equipment on the need to consult with other area cities and emergency-preparedness departments.
"We don't want these things to look like pork-barrel spending," he said.
Such accusations have dogged the department since it began handing out grants to states and cities a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Was money being wasted? In many cases it was," said James Carafano of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "People should get money based on need and risk, and not handed out like highway money."
A congressional study released last April examined all federal homeland security spending in fiscal year 2005, including UASI, and found Wyoming received $27.80 per resident, compared with $15.54 in New York state, $8.07 in Kansas and $8.26 in Missouri.
As a result, the new UASI standards are meant to judge risk and allocate grants accordingly.
The department is rating risk in part because it has less money to pass out. This year's UASI program calls for spending $765 million, $90 million less than the $855 million spent a year ago. Since it started in 2003, UASI grants have totaled $2.1 billion.
Under the new guidelines the department will assess risk for natural, as well as man-made, disasters. That, local emergency planners said, will help make Kansas City's case.
"We don't have hurricanes," Dyer said. "We have tornadoes and ice storms and floods and maybe earthquakes."
The Homeland Security Department also issues grants to states, money that is not affected by Tuesday's announcement.
Last year, the congressional survey shows, Kansas received $21.8 million, while Missouri got $47.1 million, including $15.3 million in UASI grants for Kansas City and St. Louis.
To reach Dave Helling, call (816) 234-4656 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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