Thursday, April 15, 2004

Red tape stalls counties' plans


Money needed to buy equipment

By Carl Weiser
and Frank Oliver
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Almost a year after the federal government announced an $8 million grant to Greater Cincinnati for homeland security, none of the money has been spent.

The reason: Getting it has involved a lot of planning, a lot of meetings and a lot of paperwork, government officials at every level say.

And it's part of a national problem. Getting homeland security money from Washington to where it can fight terrorism is taking too long, according to congressional members, local officials and even the Department of Homeland Security itself.

Sometime in the next month or two, local officials will begin buying the equipment that will make Greater Cincinnati residents and emergency workers safer: protective suits, air monitors, portable decontamination showers.

"Does it take too long? In a perfect world, a check would be deposited in our bank account. No rules would apply. They would trust me to go out and do the right thing," said Ed Dadosky, the district fire chief in Cincinnati and a member of the panel that helps coordinate the spending of homeland security dollars. "But the rules are in place for a reason."

The situation is similar in Kentucky. A top Kentucky homeland security official, Erwin Roberts, said the state hoped to speed up the flow of homeland security money.

"I think there are issues with the whole process," said Roberts, executive director of the state's Office of Security Coordination. "It's a work in progress. A lot of money has been spent. But there's a lot of money to be spent."

A Gannett News Service investigation has found that communities throughout the country remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks despite $8.3 billion in federal grant money set aside since 2002 for local homeland security needs.

Bureaucratic red tape has overwhelmed many cities and towns, leaving them unable to qualify for their share.

Money in limbo

State and local homeland security officials across the nation say they haven't gotten all the money they need to hire and train rescue and fire officials, law enforcement officers, hazardous materials teams and other first responders. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey released in January showed that, depending on the grant program, two-thirds to three-quarters of cities hadn't gotten their money.

Members of Congress, who hear the complaints from local officials, have stepped up pressure on the department to dispatch money faster.

Even the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general and internal watchdog issued a report last week criticizing the bureaucracy and paperwork holding up much-needed money for first responders.

"We need to remember this is a huge amount of money coming out to the states," said Suzanne Mencer, director of the federal Office for Domestic Preparedness. Many communities have little experience writing grant applications, and many have been slow to develop required security strategies. Some use outdated accounting systems that can't cope with federal purchasing requirements.

Cincinnati, and Ohio, actually are in better shape than many other places. The money has moved a little faster in Ohio's case. Nationally, only about 10 percent of the money for some fiscal 2003 grants, which ended in September, has made it to its final local destination, according to the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.

Ohio has been awarded more money, about $254 million, than all but six other states.

Cincinnati, too, has done well - disturbingly well. The Urban Area Security Initiative Grants that Cincinnati has amassed are awarded based on population density, terrorist targets and threats. Cincinnati has done better than bigger, denser cities such as Cleveland, Columbus or Atlanta and San Diego.

The Department of Homeland Security won't explain why, saying it's classified. Not even state and local homeland security officials know the full reason.

"We're just not privy to it," said Rob Glenn, chief of public affairs for the state Emergency Management Agency.

"They wouldn't give us much information," said Chris Eilerman, special projects coordinator for Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. "I am curious. If you get an answer from them, I'd like to hear what they say."

The Enquirer filed a Freedom of Information Act request in November. But the Department of Homeland Security has not provided any documents.

Only the beginning

The $8 million, announced in a May 14, 2003, of Homeland Security Department news release, is a small portion of the money that eventually will come to the region.

That money was from fiscal 2003; another fiscal 2004 grant will bring $12.8 million once all the paperwork is done.

Separately from those "urban" grants, all counties share in giant grants sent to the states and other pots of homeland security money.

The $8 million will pay for items including:

• Equipment that can detect chemical agents - gases such as sarin, mustard gas and VX, Dadosky said.

• Personal protective gear for fire departments.

• A truck for mass casualty incidents. It will be filled with stretchers, splints, oxygen, a few antidotes.

• Part of a new command center atop Knob Hill on the city's west side.

• Portable decontamination showers for area hospitals.

The quantities will depend on the results of the bids, Dadosky said.

"You don't just go out and buy a decontamination unit and say, 'Gimme one of those,' " he said.

Don Maccarone, Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency director, said it probably would two to three months before gear is on site and ready for any terrorist attack.

But local officials unanimously say they are far better prepared for any terrorist strike than they were before 9-11. They've spent some smaller emergency grants that predated the March 2003 formation of the Department of Homeland Security.

And the top terrorist-response officials meet weekly in a local Terrorism Preparedness Advisory Team, made up of representatives from hospitals, police and fire departments and the coroner's office.

Local officials say the money should start flowing faster. Part of the problem was everyone was doing something for the first time.

Local governments, for example, had to file homeland security assessments that were sent to Columbus. Like much of the paperwork involved, it's secret.

"You're not allowed to look at it. I'm not allowed to look at it, either," said Rob Glenn, chief of public affairs for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. The reports examined vulnerable targets and what the governments could do to cut the terrorist threat.

Lots of local input

Once those reports were approved, the local advisory committees had to come up with wish lists.

Now that counties and cities know their weaknesses, they are beginning to buy the equipment and get the training needed, Glenn said.

"Yes, Ohioans are safer now," he said. "Counties are still working on bolstering capabilities."

In Washington, homeland security officials have created a task force that will work until mid-May to streamline the flow of money to the states. Josh Filler, director of state and local government coordination at the Homeland Security Department, said he has had conference calls with state and local officials to educate them on expediting grant applications.

Department officials require states to turn over at least 80 percent of the federal money to municipalities. They would like the money to get where it needs to go within 60 days.

"The system of moving money is not conducive to speed," Filler said. "We need to take a hard look at that."




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