GAO calls antiterrorism grant delays “natural”

Local first responders underestimated how long it takes to move huge amounts of money through the intergovernmental pipeline.

Playing down a long-simmering dispute between states and cities, a General Accounting Office official Thursday described as "natural" the delays in the pipeline that carries federal Homeland Security Department funds to local emergency-response agencies.

Reports last month from the department's Office of the Inspector General and from the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, confirmed by "preliminary" GAO research, "support the conclusion that local first responders may not have anticipated the natural delays that should have been expected in the complex process of distributing dramatically increased funding through multiple governmental levels while maintaining procedures to ensure proper standards of accountability at each level," GAO homeland security head William Jenkins told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Building and Emergency Management.

Akron Mayor and incoming U.S. Conference of Mayors President Donald Plusquellic said problems were to be expected in getting "huge amounts of money out to the local governments, where the real homeland security takes place" but that Homeland Security should have set up an emergency system for funding local antiterrorism needs.

"There should have been an immediate process, a simple immediate process to get money out to where it was needed, and that was never developed," Plusquellic said Friday in an interview. He accused the federal government of having "an overwhelming concern, almost obsession," with seeking to save money by avoiding redundancy in local response spending, instead of speedily providing funds for needs identified by local officials.

A January report by the mayors' group indicated that states failed to provide most U.S. cities with funds from Homeland Security's Office for Domestic Preparedness, which administers the department's emergency-responder grants. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in February called the delays a "logjam," but state officials took exception to the term and have maintained they quickly allocate the funds but that actual spending is often delayed in various administrative and legal bottlenecks.

Citing the inspector general's report, Jenkins said a federal requirement that states "pass through" most of the money to municipalities within 45 days of receiving the funding "had a limited effect, because most states met the 45-day deadline by counting funds as transferred when the states agreed to allocate a specific amount of the grant to a local jurisdiction, even if the state had not determined how the funds would be spent or when contracts for goods and services would be let."

Jenkins took no clear position on whether that approach is proper, but he outlined a range of mostly unavoidable obstacles to speedy distribution of the grant money. State and local planning and budgetary requirements, he said, held up some funds, while other municipalities had to fulfill legal requirements related to procurement or to the acceptance of funds from the states. Certain local agencies, he added, lacked administrative procedures for managing funds for purchases that would then be reimbursed by the states ? the process states use when distributing the Office for Domestic Preparedness grants.

Jenkins echoed the inspector general's and the committee's common finding that the office's grant process itself, in Jenkins' terms, "was not a major factor in delaying the distribution of funds to states."

"The evidence available suggests that the process is becoming more efficient and that all levels of government are discovering and institutionalizing ways to streamline the grant distribution system. These increased efficiencies, however, will not continue to occur unless federal, state and local government each continue to examine their processes for ways to expedite funding for the equipment and training needed by the nation's first responders," Jenkins said.

"At the same time," he said, "it is important that the quest for speed in distributing funds does not hamper the planning and accountability needed to ensure that the funds are spent on the basis of a comprehensive, well-coordinated plan."

Plusquellic, who also sits on a federally created task force that is seeking ways to speed the flow of funds, said that "there has been a serious failure" to address cities' need for immediate funds in the wake of the September 2001 attacks.

"What has happened," the mayor said, "is the local governments have had to take up this additional cost, and we've absorbed it in spite of the fact that there were promises 2 1/2 years ago. We met in the White House a month after Sept. 11, in October 2001. We met, and the president committed over $30 billion for homeland security, and not one mayor said, 'Well, boy, that isn't enough.' But what we imagined was that Congress was going to act quicker, and that the process of getting some money out was going to be developed so that there was a matching of the immediate needs with some immediate funds coming out of Washington quickly, and then develop a long-term system that is honed and is improved every month, every year."

Plusquellic said he expects the task force report to be made public in less than a month. "I think we're going to have some recommendations that … [at] least recommend changes to the system that will, hopefully, help get this where it should be by now," he said.

"We ought to get down and thank God that there hasn't been another tragic event here," he added, "because had there been, I think the public would have been outraged to know how long it's taken for this system to get the money out."