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Homeland Security allows access to restricted funds

Recipients of federal homeland security grant money who are currently prevented from accessing those funds because of federal and state regulations will be given a one-year window to access the money while developing policy more in line with federal requirements, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday.

"Money has been a constant point of contention and refrain and understandably so," Ridge said during the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting. "There's no disagreement that we need additional dollars to our state and local communities. The problem is that we have accumulated [between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2004] about $4.6 billion that has yet to be distributed."

At issue is the 1990 Cash Management Act, which requires the federal government to reimburse localities for grant money spent rather than provide the money for projects in advance. Many cities and towns, however, have rules that say they cannot enter purchase orders unless they have the money.

Coming up with that kind of cash is "pretty difficult to do when you have a cash flow problem" at the local level, Ridge said.

As a result, a June report from the Homeland Security Department's Task Force on State and Local Homeland Security Funding recommended that recipients of fiscal 2005 homeland security funding be exempt from the restrictions of the Cash Management Act.

That recommendation will go into effect and "give the cities and states a year to break the maze of regulations and laws and ordinances" while they craft local regulations that will not conflict with the federal law, Ridge said. He encouraged the mayors to sit down with state legislators and city councils, look at the task force's report and "do whatever you need to do to break the logjam" created by the Cash Management Act.

In the meantime, the one-year break means "dollars will be streaming into communities much more quickly" than in previous years, Ridge said.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the current homeland security process is "not a good formula," but vowed to change it this year. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, "gets it and we're going ... to deal with that this year," said Voinovich, a senior member of the panel.

One community not enthused by its grant money situation is Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams voiced his concern Tuesday at the conference that the government is requiring the city to use its homeland security funds to cover some inauguration security costs.

Ridge, however, praised Williams for "doing an extra job [and] helping the federal government" during the inauguration. Williams' staff is part of the event's joint field office, which is a "terrific model where everyone is involved -- coordinating, sharing equipment and sharing people," Ridge said.

Meanwhile, with only days left in his term as secretary, Ridge touted his department's information sharing network. "We are still not to the point where we've got that flow that's as consistent as it needs to be, but [we've made definite progress] in a short period of time."