Lawmakers demand details on security grant program

Members of the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday demanded clarification from the Bush administration regarding exactly how states and cities can use a new $1 billion grant program to improve their emergency communications capabilities.

Not willing to wait, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said she expects language to be inserted into the fiscal 2007 supplemental spending bill for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to define how the funds can be spent. The House Appropriations Committee will debate the supplemental Thursday.

The Homeland Security and Commerce departments must establish guidelines for grant allocations under the program, which aims to help municipalities buy and deploy communications equipment that can work across jurisdictions. By law, grant obligations must be made by Oct. 1.

Although the departments have had almost two years to design the program, officials told the House Homeland Security Emergency Communications Subcommittee on Wednesday that they will not issue grant guidance to states and cities until summer.

The officials also said they have not yet agreed on a funding formula, such as whether to give each state a guaranteed minimum or distribute all funds based on risk and threat assessments.

According to a 2005 law, the program must help public-safety agencies acquire and deploy interoperable communications systems that utilize spectrum in the 764-776 megahertz and 794-806 MHz bands. The program also calls for training in using the equipment.

But lawmakers noted that many safety agencies use systems outside those bands. They said they do not want those agencies to be punished or excluded from the grant program. New York City Deputy Police Chief Charles Dowd said New York will face immense costs if it is forced to replace its 400 MHz systems.

"There's no reason for us to be ripping out $2 billion worth of infrastructure to put in another $2 billion worth of infrastructure," he told the subcommittee. "To free up spectrum for public safety is a great thing. We just don't want to be told that you have to use this spectrum."

John Kneuer, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said administration lawyers interpret the law to mean that safety agencies will not be punished for using systems outside 700 MHz. Lowey said she expects the supplemental to clarify that agencies operating outside that band still could get grants.

Lawmakers said they also are not exactly clear on what safety agencies will be able to buy or do with the money. Full committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he wants a meeting between his staff and administration officials "to make sure we are all on the same page for what the funds can be used for."

Lawmakers may be heading toward a battle over whether to guarantee each state set funding under the program. Lowey said all funds should be distributed based on risk and threat. A Senate-passed homeland security bill, however, would guarantee each state 0.75 percent of total funding.

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