The Washington area has not spent the majority of $145 million in anti-terrorism grants awarded by the federal government over the past three years, including funds earmarked for such critical items as hospital beds and protective gear for rescue workers.
Long after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, homeland security spending across the country remains bogged down by administrative problems, back orders for equipment and long timelines to implement new technology, such as communications systems.
A significant failing "of the current system . . . is the lack of consistency in the way monies are spent," says Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).
Although the Washington area is designated as high-risk, it has not spent $120 million of the federal aid it received between 2002 and 2004, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Local authorities said that spending fell behind in 2003 and that more time was needed to coordinate plans with Maryland, Virginia and 16 suburban jurisdictions.
The area, which has a spending rate of 17 percent, ranks last compared with the 50 states, according to data released to Congress and obtained by The Washington Post and CBS's "60 Minutes," which is scheduled to air a report tonight on waste in homeland security grants. The national spending average is 44 percent.
Local authorities said the ranking is misleading because it does not reflect that they have committed 80 percent of their funds, or $115 million, to projects underway for the District and its suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia. The inclusion of obligated funds, they said, is a fairer measure than counting dollars spent only after the work is completed.
Still, Washington will miss a June 30 deadline for spending $46 million that has been available for two years, the D.C. government said. Officials have asked for a half-year extension from the Department of Homeland Security to avoid losing the money.
The area's record in using federal dollars illustrates a major flaw in a homeland security grant funding system that doles out cash first and requires plans later, said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Cox is proposing legislation that would award more money to certain jurisdictions based on threat assessments and require states and regions to coordinate plans before applying for aid.
"The growing pains that we have experienced in the national capital region teach us valuable lessons for the rest of the country," Cox said. "One of the significant failings of the current system . . . is the lack of consistency in the way monies are spent. Across the country, there are notorious examples -- and too many of them -- of what can only be called government waste."
U.S. funding for first responders -- rescue workers -- flows mainly through a State Homeland Security Grant program, awarded mainly based on population and, increasingly, through an Urban Area Security Initiative aimed at 50 metropolitan centers designated as high-risk.
Under federal rules, the District receives the bulk of its funding through the program for high-risk centers. Responsibility for the money is shared across the region by advisers to the mayor and governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Department of Homeland Security.
Some of the region's unspent funds are earmarked for creating hospital-surge capacity for mass casualty events and equipping emergency workers with more breathing gear and protective clothing for attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. An additional $90 million in aid for this year became available Friday.
The region has made some progress. Local governments spent $25 million for baseline needs of police, fire and medical workers, including: obtaining 1,000 radios; starting a public emergency alert system; developing a disease surveillance network; and teaching preparedness to schoolchildren through a Masters of Disaster program.
Matt Mayer, acting executive director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's preparedness office, said Washington faced a unique burden in having to bridge the federal, state and local governments.
"Frankly, I would expect the national capital region to be at a slower pace than other places," said Mayer, who declined to characterize the region's performance. "It is a learning process for all of us. . . . The key is for us to be working together."
So much federal money has flowed to the region in a short period of time that officials have veered between spending the money quickly and spending it carefully. After the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the region received an initial $324 million in security funds with few guidelines or restrictions. In spending those funds, officials said speed was more important than coordination.
A Washington Post review of the spending found cases of duplication, waste and diversion of federal aid to pay for such items as leather jackets for police, a summer jobs program for D.C. teenagers, lucrative consulting contracts for political figures and redundant purchases of emergency command centers and vehicles across the region. Nearly 60 percent of the money, however, was spent within 22 months.
Edward D. Reiskin, deputy Washington mayor for public safety and justice, said that when a second wave of funds arrived in 2003, regional leaders knew they needed to slow the pace and improve coordination, but they lost focus. "We didn't organize quickly as a region to manage and plan for these expenditures as we might have," he said.
He said officials now move faster, spending in consultation with chief administrators from every jurisdiction and emergency operations chiefs. "It may be a little cumbersome, but it's what we want to do to make sure we hear from all voices," Reiskin said.
Nationwide, U.S. aid to first-responders -- which the Bush administration estimates at $13 billion -- has been beset with bureaucratic problems since increasing 30-fold in the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Funds became stalled for months in federal and state administrative pipelines. Analysts warned that sparsely populated states received more per-capita aid than states with many targets such as New York. Cash-poor jurisdictions complained that they lacked the budgets to tackle big projects on a reimbursement basis, as required. Planning and accountability at all levels lagged.
In response to a series of critical reports by Congress and its own inspector general, the Homeland Security Department streamlined grant procedures last year; imposed deadlines for spending; approved checklists for equipment purchases; and increased state reporting requirements. The department just released a report setting interim national preparedness goals.
Dennis R. Schrader, homeland security adviser to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said that though planning took "longer than what we would have liked," the region's many partners have learned to work together. "That, to me, is the first step. Those relationships are what is going to allow us to be effective."