Monday, February 9, 2004

More than half the money allocated in the past two years to help local emergency aid agencies prepare for terrorist attacks has not been disbursed, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told lawmakers yesterday.

Mr. Ridge told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that $8 billion to $9 billion in federal funding allocated as long ago as 2002 had not reached the front-line agencies it was intended to help, despite the financial straits in which many found themselves.

“Some [dollars] have not been distributed from ‘02 yet,” he told committee member Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat. “We still have almost half from ‘03, if not more, let alone the ‘04 dollars.

“So,” Mr. Ridge concluded, “there is a problem there.”

A series of reports, including one from the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, has found the nation’s first responders to be underfunded and understaffed.

Mr. Ridge pointed out that his department was not to blame for the delay. He said the reasons for the holdup varied from place to place.

“Looking at our partners … at the state and local level, we know that … depending on the state, there are different reasons for the delay.”

Mr. Ridge criticized local officials who have faulted state or federal bureaucracies.

He declined to allocate blame. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault,” he said. “It’s a new system. … Suddenly there is more money in the pipeline for state and locals than they have ever imagined.”

A committee staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the department “had done a pretty good job” in allocating the money to state governments.

The staffer said the holdups often were the result of state regulations governing procurement or grant applications. Sometimes the administrative machinery to cope with such a huge influx of dollars simply was not in place.

“It’s like trying to get a fire hose full of money out through a garden sprinkler,” the staffer said.

Mr. Ridge added after the hearing that accountability issues also were delaying the distribution of some dollars.

“There’s a couple of things we need to understand as all this money’s going out the door. … Are we getting a security return on our investment?”

He said no cash would be distributed this year until states had approved and submitted strategic plans. He said this was being done for the first time, to ensure that the money was being spent wisely.

He also promised to work with state and local governments to try to streamline the distribution process.

“We are going to take it upon ourselves, with our partners, to try to break the logjam,” he told Mr. Pryor, “and come up with a standard means of distribution so that neither you nor your colleagues on the committee or other members of Congress, and, more importantly, the first responders will ever say again, ‘It’s taking too long to get those dollars to us.’”

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