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COORDINATING DISASTER RELIEF

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks united the nation in both grief and sympathy, and triggered an outpouring of generosity by Americans who wanted to help heal the wounds. That response was one to be proud of, but it also has led to problems of accountability that should be sorted out.

So far, charitable donations have reached $850 million, and the giving has been channeled to 180 organizations. Some of these groups, such as the American Red Cross and the United Way, are well established, while others have formed as a result of the tragedy.

Questions have arisen about coordination of all this fund-raising and spending, targeted mostly on the World Trade Center where the losses were the heaviest and most heart-wrenching. At one point, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said he would coordinate the effort. But, given the amount of work left for the outgoing mayor, it seems more reasonable to defer to New York State's attorney general, Eliot L. Spitzer, whose office has the expertise and the ultimate oversight of the charities.

Here's the problem. The proliferation of so many fund-raising groups has left people confused about where to donate, and has given rise to concerns that the funds may not be distributed equitably.

Centralizing the coordination of charitable donations is a reasonable response to the confusion, and could provide information to help charities make smarter decisions on dispensing funds.

Spitzer was correct in answering that call. He already has the apparatus in place to provide such a service and, given that his office is ultimately responsible for regulating charities in the state, it makes sense.

Toward that end Spitzer's office has established two centralized databases, one to keep track of each philanthropy's efforts and the other to keep track of what each victim's family received in donations. His office has created a Web site -- www.wtcrelief.info -- describing the various charities. Another Web site listing recipients will be up in a couple of weeks. It will be accessible to charities and not the general public. The idea is for charities to rationalize their giving, Spitzer said.

Spitzer's office wants to assist by providing information points to the charities without dictating, but guiding them to better decisions by informing the charities of what has already been done.

Again, it makes sense.

There is no good argument to maintain a decentralized system. If the state attorney general's office were dictating how the money should be spent, then caution would be warranted. But that's not the case.

There are numerous reasons to support a centralized effort under the auspices of the state attorney general's office, not the least of which are eliminating duplication, discouraging fraud and curtailing miscommunication. The centralization efforts following the Oklahoma City bombing should have been an example of how well a unified mechanism for distributing funds can work.

Charitable donations following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will certainly continue, soon surpassing the $1 billion mark. There is a clear need for a clearinghouse of information, a task to which the state attorney's office, which welcomes help in assisting the process, is well suited. It's not a question of who gets credit, but of having the information available.

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