States and localities have been slow to spend federal funding earmarked for police, firefighters and other emergency first responders, according to a report released Thursday by federal investigators.

But in many cases, the federal government's failure to provide spending guidelines contributed to the delays, the report concluded.

The report by the Homeland Security Department's (search) inspector general - who serves as the agency's watchdog - described bureaucratic logjams over the money at every level of government.

The report comes in the wake of complaints over the holdup of funding for tools to protect the public against terrorist attacks.

"State officials told us that they prefer to go slow to get it right," DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin wrote in the 52-page report. The agency's Office of Domestic Preparedness (search) oversees and funds the local plans.

Among the reasons cited by states and localities for the delays were too-tight deadlines to consider federal grant programs and a dearth of clear federal guidelines to help first responders determine their highest priority needs.

The report examined distribution and spending in the 10 states that received the most federal first responder grant money.

Collectively, the states - Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, California, and Pennsylvania - were awarded $124 million in 2002. That's 39 percent of the total $316 million earmarked nationally that year.

Of the $124 million, 82 percent sat unspent in the federal Treasury, the report noted. However, a third of the funding was not immediately available because states had not completed necessary grant applications to accept it.

States and localities also pointed to administrative delays at the state, county and city levels as a reason for the bottleneck.

The federal government also contributed to the delivery delays, even as Congress required that grant money must be transferred to states within 45 days of being awarded. But, the report noted, the short time turnaround increased pressure on local officials who were unable to quickly decide how to spend the money.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who in February largely blamed bureaucracy between states and localities for the delay, last month created a 20-person task force to examine the funding distribution process. The panel will submit its recommendations in May.

"The inspector general's report reaffirms many of the conclusions we have identified about getting homeland security dollars to the local and state levels," said DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith.