Panel finds complexity slows U.S. antiterrorism spending

Despite the best intentions of all parties, money is slow to work its way through the pipeline.

A panel seeking ways to speed the flow of federal antiterrorism funds to emergency responders has concluded that the complexity of the process is slowing spending despite good intentions by most parties, a source familiar with the panel's work said Thursday.

The Bush administration created the 20-member task force of state and local officials two months ago to seek ways to speed the flow of grant funds. The panel has now completed a draft of its recommendations and plans to deliver a final version to the administration in about two weeks, the source said.

The source called the system for distributing the funds "incredibly complex," saying that the Homeland Security Department and most states have designated funding recipients as required by law but that "administrative and procedural issues" slowed actual spending.

The source cited obstacles, including cities' procedural obligations, when making purchases, state requirements for legislative approval of allocations and a common "catch-22" in which municipalities cannot begin procurement processes without already having the necessary funds for the purchase but can receive only reimbursements from state governments. The findings are similar to those of recent reports on the problem.

The report comes amid intense scrutiny of the system by which the federal government funds emergency responders' purchases of everything from radios to chemical-agent detectors. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and others have spoken of a "logjam" in the pipeline, and states and cities have locked horns for more than a year over local officials' claims that money is not reaching them quickly enough.

It would be a "dramatic oversimplification," the source said, to cast blame on Washington or the states for slow spending. Available data do not support the view that direct funding to cities, something various mayors and members of Congress have advocated, would alleviate the problem, the source said.

A top Homeland Security official Wednesday indicated that the department's view resembles that of the task force, saying the grants should generally continue to be channeled through state governments. Emergency responders' needs should be met through a "regional approach" in which municipalities work together to coordinate equipment purchases and other efforts, Office for State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness Director Suzanne Mencer told a defense industry conference in Arlington, Va.

"The best way to do that is to have it go through the state. … We firmly believe that the funding should go through the state," she said.

Mencer was until recently head of the department's Office for Domestic Preparedness, which has been consolidated with the Office of State and Local Government Coordination to form the office she now leads. The office is Homeland Security's main vehicle for funding state and local preparedness and response.

Several pending congressional bills would alter the department's method for distributing the grants. Homeland Security now provides each state with 0.75 percent of its total emergency response-grant budget and distributes the rest based on population density and other factors.

The pending bills largely reflect a desire by Congress to give more weight to risk and threat assessment and to spend less based on arbitrary formulas. A bill that has passed the House Select Committee on Homeland Security would also provide for some direct grants to intrastate regions and, when states are found in breach of their obligation to "pass through" funds to local governments, allow direct payments to cities.

A top emergency-preparedness adviser to Virginia Governor Mark Warner, George Foresman, told the defense contractors yesterday that although the homeland security business is probably not yet what they hoped at the outset, it is "about to be."

Foresman said the funding task force, of which Warner is a member, would offer suggestions for changes at all levels of government but that spending has already begun to increase.

"One of the things that the data told us is that the process is maturing, particularly in the last several months. … We've seen rapid increases in the expenditure of federal funds," Foresman said.

"The system is beginning to work like a well-oiled machine," he said.

Disputing a conference participant's characterization, Foresman said the system is not "broken."

"There are contributing factors at all levels of government as to why the system is not working as smoothly as it could," he said.

Foresman stressed the importance of a national assessment of the terrorist threat, which Homeland Security is required to produce under the 2002 legislation that created the department, as a means of deciding where to target response funds. He said the current system of grants to states is the best method for distributing the funds until the assessment is completed.

"Until we get that [assessment] and until we have some validation that there's equity in it, then we can't go to a full risk-based funding approach," Foresman said.