Report faults security aid distribution

Major cities shortchanged, congressional study finds

April 28, 2004|By Thomas Frank | Thomas Frank,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - Millions of dollars in federal homeland security aid has gone to communities that don't need it, and billions more remain unspent, according to a congressional study released yesterday.

The report affirms complaints by New York officials who say they've been shortchanged in homeland security grants and will fuel their push to require that the federal government give a greater share of funds to high-risk areas.

"The system has provided small counties across the country with relatively large awards of terrorism preparedness money while major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago struggle to address their needs," the report states.

Analyzing $6.3 billion in federal grants approved since April 2003 for emergency responders, the report criticizes both the federal government and the states for distributing the money in a way that guarantees significant sums to every state and community regardless of their vulnerability.

For example, Mason County, Wash., a timber community of 49,000 people, bought a $63,000 truck last year for hazardous materials spills, even though the county has no hazardous materials team. An official with the county sheriff's office told the report's investigators that the truck "will go to waste sitting on a shelf collecting dust."

Without federal guidelines on what equipment and capabilities each community should have for homeland security, federal money has paid for items "of only marginal utility to homeland security," the report states. Many state officials saw the funds as a "wish list" for new emergency equipment.

New York lawmakers hailed the House Homeland Security Committee staff's report. Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, a California Republican, is sponsoring a measure to require homeland security grants be allocated after a study of each community's vulnerability.

"I hope Chairman Cox will hand-deliver his report to [Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge so the administration will join with him in fixing these flaws," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat.

Ridge told New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last year that the funds should be awarded differently, but no changes have been made in the formula that gives more money per capita to rural states than to urban ones. In every round of grants, the formula guarantees each state an identical minimum plus additional money based on population, resulting in Wyoming getting seven times as much per capita as New York.

Cox's bill also would speed the process for getting federal money to communities by removing some logistical hurdles. The analysis found that about $5.2 billion of the $6.3 billion in grants "remains in the administrative pipeline, waiting to be used" because communities have had to develop homeland security strategies after states got the money and needed local board approval to spend the funds.

Cox said his measure wouldn't automatically redirect money from rural areas to cities, noting that money would probably go to protect agriculture, nuclear power plants, pipelines and other facilities throughout the country.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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