More federal cash sought for local defense

Security funding debated as Bush unveils '04 budget

February 03, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The costs of fighting terrorism on the street are piling up fast for Baltimore, as they are for cities and states around the country. And officials are looking to the White House and Congress for help.

In November, Mayor Martin O'Malley and dozens of Baltimore police officers, firefighters and health workers participated in an elaborate daylong training exercise involving a simulated "dirty bomb" threat in the Inner Harbor and a concurrent sniper attack. The drill cost the city $150,000.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Baltimore police officers and firefighters have had to work a staggering number of overtime hours to respond to federal terror alerts. The price tag: $4 million.

So far, homeland security efforts have cost Baltimore $11 million. And sometime soon, the city will have to change its water-treatment plants from systems that use chlorine - a combustible substance that potentially could be weaponized by terrorists - to ones that use bleach, a less volatile chemical. The switch is expected to cost $24 million.

The mounting homeland security efforts are coming at a time when cities and states can ill afford them, and congressional Democrats have teamed up with governors and local leaders to push the federal government to pick up more of the tab.

"Please, Mr. President, no more teary tributes to our fallen police and fire heroes until you back up our living first responders with the tools and equipment they need to protect our nation," O'Malley said nine days ago in delivering the Democratic response to Bush's Saturday radio address. "These are the nation's real priorities."

Homeland security aid is just one of the many demands President Bush has addressed while crafting next year's federal budget, which he unveils today.

But with the nation on the brink of a war with Iraq, the economy limping and the federal deficit ballooning, resources are limited. And in a time of heavy budget burdens, the new Department of Homeland Security represents a major question mark in the federal ledger.

$41.3 billion budgeted

Bush's budget for fiscal 2004 is expected to include $41.3 billion for homeland security. But it is far from clear whether that amount is sufficient to bring together the myriad agencies that make up the new Department of Homeland Security and to fund its mission: preparing for, defending against and responding to terrorist threats.

With the largest chunks of the homeland security budget going to protecting the nation's transportation systems, borders and ports, it also is not clear how much Bush will set aside for states, cities and counties.

Also murky is how much the investigation of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia will affect the budget of the new department, which will include the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has jurisdiction over domestic disasters.

`Glaring vulnerabilities'

Democrats began criticizing the $41.3 billion funding level last week, after newly installed Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced it in Miami.

"This doesn't come close to what the investment experts say is needed to address glaring vulnerabilities in our homeland defenses," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who is seeking his party's 2004 presidential nomination. "The new Department of Homeland Security cannot succeed in keeping the nation safe unless we give it the resources required for a full frontal assault on terrorism."

The department, which comprises 22 existing federal agencies or offices and has more than 170,000 employees, is expected to take up 5 percent of next year's discretionary budget - the part Congress controls. Budget experts say there is no way of knowing how far that will go.

"There aren't really any guidelines because this doesn't really exist yet," said Stanley Collender, a budget analyst at the public affairs firm Fleishman-Hillard. "These pieces have never been aggregated before, so it's tough to say what they include and what they don't include, and really how much they should cost."

The situation is further complicated because Congress has yet to pass a budget for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Bush requested $38 billion for homeland security in 2003, including $3.5 billion in grants that would help states pay for training and equipping local first responders.

`It's a new issue'

But until Congress completes complex House-Senate negotiations on a major spending measure - which rolls 11 spending bills totaling about $390 billion into one - there will be no official funding level for the department.

"We really don't know whether the $38 billion was an effective amount because we haven't operated under that, so it's hard to assess how that number worked," said Michael Scardaville, a homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "It's a little bit of learning as we go. ... It's a new issue, it's a new area of investment, so we're kind of starting from scratch here."

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