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Administration rethinks system for allocating security funds

To better meet the needs of states and localities, the Homeland Security Department is considering new ways of allocating funds to emergency "first responders" for counter terrorism and other disaster preparedness, Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday.

Acknowledging the problems that state and local police, fire and other emergency-response organizations face in obtaining federal grants, Ridge told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that his department has been experimenting with different mechanisms to calculate how much money states and communities should receive.

"Our current formula fails to recognize that linear population increases do not equate into linear threat increases," Ridge said of the grant-distribution process.

Instead, the department is considering how to weight those factors as well as a region's degree of vulnerability. Threat assessments are based on intelligence that considers catastrophic damage that could result from an attack. Vulnerabilities could include the number of critical infrastructures housed within state and national landmarks, for example.

"At the end of the day ... we shouldn't distribute a security dollar unless it is consistent with ... an overarching plan brought into us by the states," Ridge said. He also called on lawmakers to convey the message that states must craft a strategy to coordinate with their local communities before receiving federal funds.

Ridge also defended the decision of his department's Office of Domestic Preparedness to provide grants to seven major cities that satisfied threat, vulnerability and population criteria. Those factors were weighted and based on intelligence from the CIA, FBI and other agencies, he said.

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine cited complaints by police, fire and other public-safety groups in her state that several federal agencies tasked with supplying first responders with grants are asking for the same homeland security plans. "Shouldn't there be a way to consolidate some of those plans?" she asked.

Ridge said the department is working to eliminate duplicative requests for security plans but stressed that the government needs those strategies to hold states and localities accountable for how they spend federal money.

Although several senators chided Ridge for not making more funds available to states to hire personnel, some panel members argued that there is a limit to federal security grants. "I do not believe that all homeland security expenses and costs should be underwritten by the federal taxpayer," said Alaskan Ted Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Both Stevens and fellow Republican George Voinovich of Ohio urged Ridge and the Bush administration to clearly define the federal responsibility for funding homeland security in the states. "We have to reduce the expectation of unlimited funding," Stevens said.

Ridge also told the panel that the department is trying to make progress in building an Internet portal for grant applications and that he supports moving the Office of Domestic Preparedness into the department's State and Local Coordination Office.

Meanwhile, Collins said she would introduce a measure to streamline the structure for distributing homeland security grants. The measure would consolidate multiple grant application requirements, allow states to use the funds flexibly to meet needs and coordinate security grants with other state and local funding programs.