State bureaucracy slows grants

The Health and Human Services Department said that states and municipalities didn't spend much of the federal bioterrorism funds awarded to them, while a Government Accountability Office report determined jurisdictions used a significant portion of the money.

But many jurisdictions -- including the 50 states, four U.S. municipalities, and several territories -- cited hiring freezes, bureaucracies, and problems with their information technology upgrades as delays in allocating and spending program funding, GAO found.

Officials in four jurisdictions said it took time to plan and implement improvements in their IT systems and equipment. In one state, installing new computer systems and videoconferencing equipment into a particular location required a site survey that could take two months to a year to complete, the report indicated.

In another state, funds were earmarked for continuous, high-speed Internet connectivity that would support local public health agencies and their partners. But that required engineering studies because significant areas of the state did not have access to such Internet services. That delayed distribution of funds to local public health agencies, the report concluded.

The GAO report determined that states and municipalities did spend most of the bioterrorism funds awarded in fiscal years 2001, 2002, and 2003. Last year, HHS officials stated large unexpended balances remained from 2002 and 2003 and reallocated $55 million from 2002 and 2003 for fiscal year 2004 to support other local and national bioterrorism initiatives.

"In assessing the pace at which jurisdictions are spending these funds, it is useful to consider that prudent use of public funds -- particularly for new programs -- requires careful and often time-consuming planning," the report stated. "Once plans have been developed, obligating and expending the funds to implement them takes additional time."

The report said that some jurisdictions have simplified some processes to accelerate the time it takes to earmark and spend funds. HHS officials declined to comment on the report, according to GAO.

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