Security puts the squeeze on counties, cities

Hardship: Already worried about cutbacks in aid from the states, they want more from Washington to address demands in the fight against terrorism.

March 23, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

WHILE MOST of the world watched President Bush last week for signs of when hostilities would begin with Iraq, local government leaders in Maryland and across the nation had eyes only for Tom Ridge.

The moment the bombs started dropping didn't matter much to local mayors and county executives. But on Monday, when the director of the new Department of Homeland Security upgraded the nation's terrorism alert level from yellow to orange, the second-highest level, local government leaders scrambled to ramp up security at municipal buildings, religious and cultural institutions, bridges, reservoirs and more.

Every notch on Ridge's color-coded scale corresponds to a new level of vigilance by the nation's law enforcement, mostly by officers in local police departments, and to a new level of cost for local governments, already strapped for cash by the recession and anxious about cuts in aid from state governments.

But it has not corresponded to any major infusion of new money from the federal government to pay for security, leaving local governments unable to pay for all the security they want to provide and forcing them to cut other programs to pay for what improvements they do make.

"We're not debating the necessity of sending $26 billion to Turkey, but I think a few million for Baltimore and Detroit and New York and other cities would be prudent," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who last week was named chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors task force on homeland security.

In the 15 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Baltimore spent nearly $15 million on additional security, $2.5 million of which came from state and federal government sources, statistics from the mayor's office show. Less than half of that was new federal funding provided as a result of the attacks.

Without new money, the city has reprioritized, shuffled funds around and instituted a hiring freeze, but the result is that Baltimore hasn't been able to spend as much tackling the problems of drugs, crime and poverty.

"The things, I suppose, we would have put it into would be stopping the chemical attacks of cocaine and heroin," O'Malley said. "We would have put it into helping families, we would have put it into expanding after-school activities. ... But we don't have the luxury here of waiting for Washington to catch up to reality."

The biggest share of city expenditures has gone to the Police Department, largely to overtime and reassignment of officers to homeland security duty, and to safeguarding the water and wastewater systems.

O'Malley's office estimates that the city needs to spend another $8.4 million on new communications and hazardous materials equipment, training, protective gear and other items. But to be totally prepared, Baltimore would need to spend another $122 million to upgrade water and wastewater treatment plants, to build a hardened emergency operations center, to install a fire/emergency siren system and more.

And if Ridge increases the national threat level to red, the city estimates it would cost an additional $300,000 a day for police patrols alone.

Counties also have scrambled to provide more security and are clamoring for more money, but their needs are generally different - and often less acute - than the city's. Not only are county governments in better financial shape than the city, they don't have the kinds of attractions that draw large numbers of people - and require major additional security.

Baltimore concerns

"The city has the stadium and the Inner Harbor, and the county doesn't generally have the large-scale concerns that the city has to constantly keep that level up," said Lt. Richard Muth, director of the Baltimore County Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said that much of the expense for the county has been unquantifiable. Time that could have been spent on normal county business instead was used to coordinate evacuation plans with neighboring jurisdictions, to train Health Department workers to deal with a biological attack and to send police officers to check on municipal buildings, synagogues and mosques.

The county has some big-ticket items it would love to buy but can't, most notably a new communications system for police and firefighters that would be compatible with those in neighboring jurisdictions, something that would be extremely helpful in dealing with a large-scale incident, Smith said.

"That would be terrific, but we don't have the money for that, and it has not been forthcoming from the Homeland Security office, so we're using cell phones and the typical equipment that we have available to us," Smith said. "There's no way that we can meet that level of response that I wish we could."

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, with O'Malley as its chief spokesman, has made a major lobbying effort to get Washington to send more aid directly to local governments without cutting their existing programs and without filtering it through state government. .

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