Mayors say anti-terror money from U.S. hung up at state level

Most cities have received none of $1.5 billion from largest grant program

January 23, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The vast majority of U.S. cities, including Baltimore, have received little or none of the money the federal government has allocated for handling potential terrorism because states that receive the money are ill-equipped to pass it on to the cities, a survey of hundreds of mayors has found.

Though some cities have received portions of the money, a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that in the case of the Homeland Security Department's largest grant program, more than three-fourths of the cities have received no money at all.

Under that program, $1.5 billion was sent to states to pay for "first-responders" and security for possible terrorist targets.

Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, who is co-chairman of the task force that produced the report, said Baltimore is faring only slightly better.

The city has received several million dollars, but it is $18 million in the hole for security costs, much of it resulting from the periodic raising of the nation's terrorism threat level. It also has $20 million in additional funding requests that have not been met.

`Tied up in knots'

"The money is not reaching the population and economic centers of this country," O'Malley said at a news briefing with more than a dozen other mayors. "It is tied up primarily in administrative and bureaucratic knots in 50 state capitals across the country."

"The administration and Congress should act now to direct appropriate homeland security funds to cities and eliminate the bureaucracy of the middleman."

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, indicated that such a move is unlikely.

"It is far more effective to have a statewide strategy than to award directly to localities," Roehrkasse said. "We want to ensure the greatest level of accountability to ensure the money is maximized."

But numerous mayors argued yesterday that distributing money directly to the cities would be more cost efficient and ensure better use of the money. City officials, they said, know exactly where their cities are most vulnerable yet are often overruled by state officials.

Several mayors blamed the federal government for offering little guidance to state agencies, which often lack experience in handling large influxes of federal money. Some complained of bureaucratic hurdles, such as long waiting periods and documents and unnecessary oversight.

In Maryland, homeland security money is administered by the state's Emergency Management Agency, which until Sept. 11, 2001, had mostly dealt with emergencies resulting from hurricanes or other natural disasters.

Baltimore officials said they often have to explain the grant application process to state officials and pester them about languishing applications and about what security steps can be covered by federal money.

State officials noted that 57 percent of all homeland security money for Maryland so far has gone to Baltimore. Officials also said the state is expecting new federal grants in coming months that should move faster through the system.

"You can't escape the fact that you're dealing with government," said Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Maryland "has to account for what is spent, how it is spent and whether it's being used properly," he said.

Still, Kristen Mahoney, director of the Baltimore Police Department's Grants and Government Relations section, which handles all the city's homeland security requests, said state officials seem to lack understanding of how to disburse the money and are usually slow to act on the city's requests.

Maryland is holding more than $10 million allocated for "urban area security" but has doled out only $1 million, which went largely to cover costs associated with the most recent raising of the terrorism alert level.

Lack of experience

"They're doing the best they can, given the lack of guidance they're getting from the federal government," Mahoney said of the state's Emergency Management Agency. "There's just a lack of substantial experience in handling grants."

Mahoney pointed to the city's experience in a rare case when it could apply directly to the federal government. In 2002, she said, the federal Transportation Security Administration approved within six weeks a $500,000 grant for the city to pay for three new boats to patrol the harbor.

The boats were in the water by the end of the year.

But noting that most of the federal money has become bottled up in state offices, James A. Garner, the mayor of Hempstead, N.Y., and president of the Conference of Mayors, called the situation "unacceptable."

"Homeland security money went to the states by Federal Express," Garner said. "But it's coming to the cities by Pony Express."

The report found that 76 percent of 215 cities surveyed had received none of the $1.5 billion for first responders and security for terrorist targets. Similarly, 64 percent of the cities had received none of a $556 million fund designated for preparedness expenses, for such things as developing city action plans in case of an attack.

Most of the cities said they had not been included in state discussions of what should be considered a security priority or what to do in case of a public health emergency.

Baltimore wrote in its survey response, "Funds are not passed through to locales at an appropriate rate, given the burden on local public health of responding to a terrorist incident."

Bowie wrote: "Our request for funds to secure our water supply was turned down. Our police officers have not received any extra training or equipment from the state or county. Any training/equipment they receive will come from our city budget."

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