WASHINGTON -- When the Department of Homeland Security divvied up $500 million in grants to 30 major cities three months ago, the city of Atlanta was noticeably absent from the recipient list.
Although its share would have been only a few million dollars - pocket change in the world of federal grant money - state and local leaders are now concerned the region's largest city could continue to get slighted.
That's because a mostly secret formula expected to determine a large share of future homeland security payments to urban areas appears to be leaving Atlanta out, which is a mystery considering cities with far fewer people and far less infrastructure are included.
"We keep asking the question 'why,"' said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., "and the answer we get is they have a formula to determine high-threat areas, and we don't have enough criteria in Atlanta to put us in high-threat areas."
Even Chambliss doesn't have access to the entire formula - or at least the parts that would explain how cities like Buffalo, N.Y., Memphis, Tenn., and Honolulu, could be on the list while the largest metropolitan area in the South isn't.
According to the Homeland Security Department, the grant recipients are based on critical infrastructure, population density and threat information. It's the threat part that is confidential, leaving state and city leaders to assume the reason Atlanta is getting less money now is because it received more to beef up communication and security before the 1996 Olympics.
"It's a surprise it's panned out with Atlanta not on that list, but we're not in a position to decide how they set up the formula," said Lisa Ray, spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "Maybe our past success is keeping us from getting some of the funding."
But Chambliss and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who have both written to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to express their concern, say the security measures imposed prior to the Olympics have little to do with bracing for the kind of terrorist attacks only imaginable since Sept. 11, 2001.
Miller points out Atlanta is home to the world's busiest airport, fifth-largest port system, two nuclear facilities and the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I do not consider arbitrarily determining grant funding for states based upon an undisclosed system to be the most equitable strategy," Miller said.
Gov. Sonny Perdue raised the matter with Ridge in a recent meeting. It has also sparked the interest of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who last week fleshed out her concerns in a letter to Rep. Johnny Isakson, an Atlanta Republican.
Franklin contends that although the city's actual population is listed at only 416,877, easily more than 1 million are within the city's borders on any given day. And even that doesn't include those making connections at Hartsfield International Airport or driving through town on one of the state's four major interstate highways.
"Given the gap between the city's population and its security burden is so great," Franklin wrote, "I would like to request that Atlanta be given special consideration with regard to homeland security funding."
But as city leaders press for special treatment, the state's senators are trying - so far in vain - to get the city treated the way they figure it should be, like any other metropolitan area its size.
During deliberations on a measure paying for the day-to-day operations of the Homeland Security Department, Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., sought to change the urban grant formula. Their amendment was ruled out of order because the formula is classified and Congress doesn't have jurisdiction over it.
Atlanta continues to get homeland security money in other forms. Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was in the city to promise significant federal help to tighten security at America's airports.
But Chambliss says his larger concern isn't that Atlanta will get little money, but that being left off the urban list could cost it benefits such as communication systems or additional FBI officials. Both he and Miller say they're not giving up the fight to get the formula changed.
"That's not cast in stone forever and ever," Chambliss said.
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Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/
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