Keeping the money flowing for first responders

A central system for administering grants is one of a series of recommendations from a task force looking into how to get $8 billion in homeland security funding to first responders faster.

For the first time, members of the Task Force on State and Local Homeland Security Funding identified why local government officials haven't seen the money they expected, and they issued 15 recommendations for getting past this problem. The report was delivered to Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge June 17.

DHS has not set a timeline for seeing that Congress, state legislators and officials involved in homeland security initiatives at every level of government follow through on these recommendations. But "there was a sense of urgency in creating the task force, and there will be a sense of urgency in reviewing their findings and recommendations," a senior department official said.

Ridge asked the Homeland Security Advisory Council to create the multigovernmental task force in March in response to complaints from officials at all levels of government about the problems disbursing the more than $8 billion in homeland security funds appropriated by Congress for fiscal 2003 and 2004.

"These are significant recommendations that I think will go a long way to improving this one particular problem, which is this stuck funding," said Donald Plusquellic, mayor of Akron, Ohio, and vice chairman of the task force.

At the end of their three-month investigation, task force members blamed the delays on an entrenched bureaucracy that included policies designed to make sure government money is spent appropriately.

"The standard grant process and purchasing procedures that exist in our country, at all levels of government, don't work terribly well if your objective is speed," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, chairman of the task force.

The group's main recommendation is to exempt fiscal 2005 grants from the federal Cash Management Improvement Act of 1990. That would help cities with charters that forbid officials from signing contracts unless the money is actually in the city's account.

"We have the ultimate Catch-22: We can't buy it until we have the money in our account, but we won't give you the money until you've bought it," Romney said.

Other recommendations focus on expanding the definition of how state and local agencies are allowed to spend the money once they have it. The recommendation that short-term expenses be included is of particular interest to many. That would cover costs such as overtime pay during heightened threat situations, an expense that has been the source of many harsh words from mayors.

There are plenty of steps that state and local governments must also take, Plusquellic said. That includes having legislators and public officials exercise emergency procurement authority while working out permanent solutions for homeland security buys, and getting officials from multiple jurisdictions to use one another's contracts.

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