Federal money slow to reach locals

"An Audit of Distributing and Spending "First Responder" Grant Funds"

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A newly released report by the Homeland Security Department said federal grants have been slow to reach state and local governments and first responder groups, but delays also occurred while states completed assessments and strategies on how to spend that money wisely.

The Office of Inspector General, which issued the report April 8, said there were numerous reasons for the funding logjams at the federal and state levels. The IG sampled 10 states to find how much money they received, how much was available and the reasons behind the delays. Some delays were unavoidable while others could be fixed.

For example, states complained that there were too many different grant programs that needed to be considered in a short time frame, there was inadequate communication between the federal government and state officials about the programs, and there was a lack of clear federal guidelines for equipment, training and exercises.

The report stated that a state's planning process is complex and takes time. States must evaluate the needs and capabilities of hundreds of local jurisdictions and first responder groups within a state. Setting up regional structures within states also takes time. State legislatures, county boards and city councils also caused administrative delays in accepting grants and approving distribution and spending of them. Other reasons included inadequate staffing and procurement cycles and processes.

"States officials told us that they prefer to go slow to get it right," the report said. "The consensus was that it was more important to spend time planning than to spend money quickly."

In early January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, whose members have long complained about the slow trickle of federal funds to cities, released a study that indicated a majority of cities had not received federal homeland security grant monies. That complaint was echoed in several congressional hearings in the last two months.

The 10 states examined include: Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, California and Pennsylvania and three grant programs administered in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 by the Office of Domestic of Preparedness. Generally, ODP sped up the time in processing applications and making awards over the two years, but there was room for improvement.

The report said ODP should:

Get better reporting from grant recipients so it could track progress more accurately and help states when necessary.

Speed up the development of federal guidelines for first responder capabilities, equipment, training and exercises.

Identify and publish best practices for faster and more efficient grant processing and spending.

Ensure that states and local jurisdictions are properly spending the money and also develop performance standards to measure the overall success of the programs.

Both House and Senate lawmakers said the report reaffirmed their own findings and that several bills streamlining the first responder funding process should be considered. "This report indicates that there is a clear need for legislation to ensure that homeland security funding reaches our first responders, who are on the front lines in the war against terrorism," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a prepared statement. "We need to untangle the web of homeland security grants to make sure our first responders are receiving assistance they need to protect our communities."

Collins's bill, S. 1245, which has several dozen co-sponsors and bipartisan support, is awaiting floor action after being unanimously approved in committee last June. The bill provides minimum funding to all states, but also increases funds based on threat and risk.

In the House, Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Jim Turner (D-Texas) have co-sponsored a bill called "The Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act." The bill calls for development of performance standards and allocates grants based on risk.

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