Seeking funds without fetters

Cities, counties want block-grant concept applied to homeland security

Homeland Security Block Grant Act

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Even as President Bush pledges $3.5 billion to cities and counties for homeland

security, local officials are asking Congress for federal funds that do

not carry too many restrictions on how that money can be used.

Bush proposed the funding to help the "first responders" — state and

local government agencies that are often the first to respond to a crisis.

But city and county officials say they want to avoid seeing funds earmarked

for too-specific purposes, which limits their ability to invest the money

where they need it or to blend money coming from different revenue streams.

They also do not want federal money to pass through the coffers of cash-strapped

states, because they fear it would never be distributed.

"The main issue is that if the money goes through the state, it doesn't

go to the local communities," said Mayor Karen Anderson of Minnetonka, Minn.,

who also is president of the National League of Cities.

Many states, including Minnesota, face budget shortfalls, and Anderson

said she has "no assurance" that federal security funds given to the states

would be passed on to local governments.

So some officials seek the development of homeland security-related

block grants. They envision something akin to the federal Community Development

Block Grant (CDBG) program, which has provided annual direct financial assistance

to qualifying local governments since 1974. The idea there is that local

communities know best how to use the money because they know their own development

priorities.

Late last November, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced

the Homeland Security Block Grant Act, modeled on the CDBG. The bill, referred

to the Judiciary Committee, would provide $3 billion, with 70 percent of

the money going directly to more than 1,000 cities and counties that have

populations of 50,000 or more. The remaining 30 percent will go to states,

which will direct them to smaller communities.

Steve Kolodney, former chief information officer for Washington state,

said states are "reluctant to see the money bypass them." But Kolodney — now vice

president for

American Management Systems Inc.'s state and local sector — said

states, like cities and counties, do not want to see a whole lot of restrictions

on federal funds.

In fact, the National Governors Association planned to send a letter

to federal government officials urging them to place the least amount of

restrictions on such funds, Kolodney said.

In a recent meeting with homeland security Director Tom Ridge, Anderson

said National League of Cities members encouraged him to consider "some

kind of mechanism to ensure that some of those funds go directly to cities

and towns."

Similar remarks recently were made at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

annual winter meeting, with several mayors saying their cities are incurring

overtime expenses and wanting to know whether federal funds could cover

that.

Under Clinton's bill, municipalities would be required to submit a plan

demonstrating how funds would improve public safety in response to a terrorist

threat. But locals would have wide latitude on how to use the funds, according

to the bill.

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