Mayors: Fed funding stream needs fixing

Poor process keeps promised money from reaching local agencies

Much of the federal funding promised to support homeland security initiatives has not trickled down to local agencies, according to a survey released last week by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Although the Homeland Security Department has awarded numerous grants — particularly to support public safety agencies — 76 percent of the 215 mayors surveyed say they haven't seen them. The problem, they say, is that most grants are being awarded to the states, which are expected to distribute them to county and city agencies.

The funding picture has improved since a survey last year, when 90 percent of mayors said they had not seen federal funds. But even if more money is flowing, mayors are concerned that state officials are making decisions about how to spend money without seeking their input. Nearly 60 percent of the mayors said their officials were not given adequate opportunity to influence how the money would be spent.

The lack of input is as big a concern as the lack of funding, said Martin O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore and co-chairman of the mayors' Homeland Security Task Force. The states tend to focus more on emergency response measures than on the preventive measures cities want to put in place, he said.

"We've been [asking for direct grants] for a couple of years now, and we need to inject the urgency at the federal level," O'Malley said. "This is not a complicated problem; we need to have allocations both to the states and to cities."

To add to the problem, the federal government is cutting back on other grants, such as the Community Oriented Policing Services and Law Enforcement Block grants, because of the growth of homeland security grants. "It is increasingly becoming a shell game without a pea under any of the shells," said Scott King, mayor of Gary, Ind.

President Bush acknowledged the problem in a speech to the mayors on Friday. Bush said he understands that the money is getting stuck at the state — not the federal — level, "so we'll work with the mayors to make sure it gets unstuck," he said. "I'm not interested in pointing fingers, I'm interested in making the system work better."

Part of the problem appears to be that state officials are not following funding guidelines outlined by DHS.

States traditionally distribute funds to local governments based on population, with high-density areas being first in line. That is the approach state officials are following with homeland security, according to O'Malley. But that's not the approach advocated by DHS Secretary Tom Ridge.

Instead, Ridge wants states to distribute money based on risk and threat assessments, said David Hagy, director for local coordination within the department's Office of State and Local Coordination. Those areas perceived to be at higher risk of attack — or where the risk is greatest — should receive money first.

Congress is working on several bills to address funding problems. One, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, would streamline and speed funding to first responders. That bill would consolidate all of the DHS grants into one program in which awards are based on developing essential capabilities.

"The concept is to set a threshold — a minimum level

of essential capabilities — and let's provide that to our communities," Turner told mayors at the meeting.

***

An uneven flow

According to a January survey, mayors are concerned about the flow of federal money through state coffers. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said local communities would like to have input on where funds are spent. Here's a sampling of what the survey found:

Only 24 percent of cities have received money from grants

earmarked for first responders and critical infrastructure protection. On the plus side, that's up from 10 percent in a September 2003 survey.

63 percent of cities report that state agencies are keeping a portion of the funding from federal Urban Area Security Initiative grants, up from 44 percent last year. Those grants are earmarked for local jurisdictions.

78 percent of cities have been asked by states to file needs assessment reports, compared to 56 percent the year before.

41 percent of city officials feel they have had adequate input into how money should be spent, compared to 42 percent last year.

Source: U.S. Conference of Mayors

NEXT STORY: Cities not getting DHS grants

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