When New York Gov. George Pataki (R) questioned the fairness of the federal government's distribution of homeland security funds last week, he broke the seal of silence on what might be called the "Minnetonka problem."
Put as a question: Does Minnetonka, Minn., population 51,301, along with other small communities and states, actually need funding for homeland security?
Perhaps. But Pataki thinks they may not need as much as they currently get.
"The latest distribution. . .does not take into consideration threat levels associated with certain targets," Pataki wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
According to Pataki, New York's high-profile targets include the most expansive mass transit system in the nation, important symbols of American freedom such as the Statue of Liberty and cornerstones of the nation's economy on Wall Street. He said these entitle the state to a greater share of federal security funds than it currently receives.
So far this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released $566 million to state and local governments for the purchase of equipment for "first responders" police, fire and health personnel and training programs.
Under the current funding formula, a significant percentage of these funds flowed to the most populous states, such as California, which received $45 million, and New York, which received $26.5 million. Less populous states received far less: Wyoming got $4.8 million and Vermont received just under $5 million.
But when measured on a per capita basis, Wyoming's take dwarfs California's. Each resident of Wyoming receives 7.5 times more security dollars than each resident of California. They receive 7 times more than each resident of New York.
With conferees from the U.S. House and Senate currently hashing out differences on a budget bill that includes President Bush's request for additional $2 billion for security for state and local governments, questions over how these funds will be distributed loom large.
Last Thursday, the House and the Senate upped Bush's funding request to $2.2 billion. The upper and lower chambers differ in how they want this money spent.
The Senate approved $1.3 billion for security grants to states. It also approved $300 million to cover vulnerable ports, airports and power plants, and another $600 million for densely populated areas. The House included $1.5 billion for security grants to states, and another $700 million for high-risk areas.
Much of this money will be subject to the same funding formula Pataki criticized, unless Congress acts to change it.
Columnist Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post, says that formula makes little sense.
"[D]ifficult though it is to do so, we will, at some point, have to admit out loud that the probabilities of [a dirty bomb exploding] in any given small city is very low, that funding is very limited and that if we are to provide every fire department in the country with expensive new tools and training, then 'homeland security' will quickly turn into a synonym for 'waste of taxpayers' money,'" she wrote.
Applebaum would prefer that federal money be given to New York, Washington, Los Angeles and a few dozen other high-risk cities and not Minnetonka.
The reason New Yorkers receive so much less federal security money than Wyoming residents on a per capita basis is due to a funding formula that guarantees each state at least .75 percent of funds available. This adds up to 40 percent of the total (when the terrorities are included). The remaining 60 percent is distributed based on population. This distribution formula finds its roots in the Patriot Act.
This arrangement is rubbing New York officials the wrong way as they watch their security costs spike up due to the Orange alert, a heightened state of security declared by Ridge because of the war with Iraq.
New York estimates it is spending $7.5 million per week above and beyond normal security expenditures, with much of the money going to the New York National Guard and overtime for State Police personnel.
In Wyoming, the additional costs of the Orange alert are so small they are difficult to measure.
"I'm sure in a lot of the high population states or in the border states that [increased cost] is measurable, but here is it not," said Kelly Ruiz, spokesperson for Wyoming's Department of Homeland Security.
Nonetheless, Wyoming officials say the state deserves its $4 million plus in federal security funds. The state would get millions more if Congress approves Bush's funding request.
"The threat is real here," said Lara Azar, spokesperson for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D). Azar said Wyoming needs the same equipment that New York does, only on a smaller scale, but that the small scale does not always mean smaller costs.
"If Wyoming needs a radio system to connect first responders, the basic components of the system are going to the same here as they are in New York, except in New York the system is going to have be a little bigger," she said.
Nonetheless, Ridge appears to side with Pataki. In a March 27 appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ridge said the current formula should be discarded.
"I would like to engage both chambers. . .to see whether or not I can convince you as I've concluded that that formula we've used in the past shouldn't be the formula we use in the future, because it doesn't take into consideration some of the special needs that certain communities have and certain states have that are substantially greater than others," Ridge said.