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San Diego dismayed over Homeland Security funding

When the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, announced new homeland security grants in March, New York and Washington DC were not the only cities outraged at funding cuts. San Diego is one of several less high profile cities that also lost out. Hearings start today on Capitol Hill to reassess the new funding criteria. And San Diego and other cities believe they have major risk factors the federal analysis overlooked. KPBS Reporter Alison St John has more.

San Diego leaders were dismayed, but not altogether surprised when they learned the region would loose over $7 million in federal homeland security money this year, and might soon be dropped from the funding list altogether.

Local Homeland Security chief Jill Olen, says everyone noticed when New York got its funding slashed, but didn't blink at the same cuts in Southern California.

OLEN: "When San Diego was taken off the list it was like, yea well so what, southern California who cares.. you know go surfing or something."

The city is used to being dismissed as a sunny tourist destination with little national significance, or security risk. But there is the other side of San Diego.

Standing next to the choppy waters of San Diego Bay you can see on the left a big white cruise ship moored next to downtown but on the right you can see the looming grey hulk of the USS Ronald Reagan, one of two nuclear powered aircraft carriers home ported here. In fact one third of the Navy's Pacific Fleet is home ported in San Diego Bay.

Just north of the Bay, hundreds of Cadets drill at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot, part of a constellation of bases around San Diego County, including Camp Pendleton and Miramar Air Base, that house 40 percent of the nation's Marine forces.

Bob Welty, director of Homeland Security projects for San Diego State University, says the strong military presence is one of several significant risk factors for the region, since they could make San Diego a target.

WELTY: "You know it could be an aircraft carrier coming into port, it could be a target of a Cole- like attack by - maybe a sizeable boat, maybe a fishing boat or something like that."

If there is a major incident in San Diego, Welty says, the Navy is as likely to head out to sea to protect their ships, as to stick around and protect San Diegans.

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff joked, when he was here, that a terrorist would have a hard time getting past San Diego's Marines, but the Marine Corp's mission to protect the nation, would come before protecting San Diego.

Another vital security concern for San Diego is the border, a point City Security chief Jill Olen says Washington officials don't seem to get. Olen says the State of California gets extra money to upgrade border security, but the new urban risk criteria took no account of the fact that San Diego is right on the border. In fact it is home to the busiest border crossing in the world.

OLEN: "We attached a map, so they could see San Diego and Mexico abutted and not to be rude or anything, but they didn't have a good feeling for that."

The big problem for all cities is that the money available for urban security is shrinking. Congress earmarked about $100 million less this year than last.

Jess Kanocke, is spokesman for the department of Homeland Security He says over time, fewer and fewer regions should need the money.

KANOCKE: "This program is about risk management and quite frankly we're talking about an eligibility list that really cities don't really want to be on, we want to invest in those communities to help them raise their base line for security, so that they fall off of that list."

But that's not the way the cities see it. San Diego's mayor Jerry Sanders is preparing to put up a fight, so that next year the city will get what he considers to be a fair share of the shrinking federal dollars.

SANDERS: "Having the busiest port of entry in the world on our border, having the largest military presence in the nation in the bay, I think we deserve to have a bigger share of the homeland security dollars."

Cities like San Diego hope Congress will readjust the funding priorities for next year. But the hard reality is that while Congress has budgeted over $300 billion for the war in Iraq, only $1.7 billion are budgeted for Homeland Security this year.

Amidst all the uncertainty, and shrinking funding, one thing is clear -- cities that used to collaborate on emergency preparedness now see each other as bitter rivals for the security dollars, and are no longer willing talk to each other and coordinate their security plans. I'm Alison St John, KPBS News.

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