The safety of cities

July 28, 2004

THE FEDERAL government has pledged $50 million to cover security costs for this week's Democratic National Convention. That's pretty close to what authorities in Boston believe will be spent to protect FleetCenter and the thousands of visitors to the city. This is notable for at least one reason - as an unusual example of homeland security costs not being foisted on local government by the Bush administration and its allies in Congress.

Remember when Congress declared war on unfunded federal mandates? That was a decade ago, and clearly, homeland security is a major exception to this charming old principle (but hardly unique, since No Child Left Behind and Medicaid share similar status). President Bush and the Republican Congress have spent billions on preparedness but not nearly as much as the combined spending of local governments (despite their own budgetary woes). Worse, what is spent by the federal government is often not apportioned wisely.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is scheduled to speak on this subject tonight at the convention. And the party's rising political star is well-versed on the topic. He chaired a U.S. Conference of Mayors task force that found that most cities are begging for help to pay for the added costs facing first-responders such as police, firefighters and emergency rescue. A recent survey found more than half of cities have yet to get a first dollar from the federal government's state-block grants, the nation's largest homeland security program.

Considering how the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were aimed at two cities, it's a shocking state of affairs. How did this happen? The chief reason seems to be that a big chunk of the nation's homeland security spending is apportioned with no regard for the actual level of risk facing communities. So Wyoming receives the highest per capita defense allocation in the nation while New York City has 5,000 fewer police officers today than it had in 1999.

Efforts to correct this imbalance have failed, victims of the usual congressional pork barrel approach to spending. The Department of Homeland Security hasn't done much better. Democrats will no doubt charge that the federal aid disparity is purely political - there are far fewer Republican votes to be found in the nation's cities. And it's getting hard to argue with that analysis. The recent 9/11 commission report cited this very problem and recommended that federal aid be allocated by a rational assessment of threats and vulnerabilities. Who can argue with that?

Mr. O'Malley thinks John Kerry will correct this situation, but we have yet to hear the Democratic nominee articulate a concrete plan for accomplishing that feat. We hope we do. But this much we know: Baltimore can't possibly raise the tax dollars needed to meet the security threat. Sitting 40 miles from the Capitol dome and home to a major port, Mr. O'Malley is right to be concerned about terrorism. The Republicans in Washington should be, too.

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