Mayors vent over changes in homeland security grants

A gathering of frustrated U.S. mayors grilled Bush administration officials Friday about federal homeland security initiatives.

The mayors told officials that recent changes in homeland security grants were inflexible, confusing and cumbersome.

"That's our problem in dealing with you," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who added that the amounts of cuts in homeland security grants over recent years would result in the grant programs being "eliminated by 2009."

The mayors also called on Homeland Security officials to increase funding for communication equipment, transit and rail systems, ports, air cargo screening, among other items.

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff earlier this month announced that the urban area grant initiative would move from funding for the 50 largest cities to a regional approach.

The change triggered an outcry from governors and mayors who said they would have to work across jurisdictions in a tight time frame to apply for the funding. On Friday the mayors called on the Homeland Security Department to clearly outline the administration's priorities for the money so city officials can better compete for limited dollars.

Tracy Henke, the department's executive director of grants and training, conceded that the department has yet to figure out how to measure preparedness, but said it was a priority for the department.

She also told the mayors that President Bush is not solely to blame for decreased spending, but that Congress shares the responsibility. She also vowed improved clarity and transparency for city and state officials before the March 2 deadline for funding applications.

Following the homeland security session, the U.S. Conference of Mayors heard sympathetic remarks from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said the Republican White House has made "wrong choices" on security issues.

"Wrong choices in Washington have left mayors with bigger burdens and unpaid bill," he said, contending that Democrats tried to increase funding levels for homeland security grants but were "rejected" last year.

The minority leader also criticized the administration for its decision to cut the National Guard, which state and local officials depend on for catastrophes.

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