Funding holdup irks mayors

The Justice Department told the nation's cash-strapped mayors last week that it is withholding the money earmarked to help first responders, a move that could delay efforts to link federal, state and local security systems in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a letter to the mayors, the department blamed the holdup on Congress' failure to pass all but two of the fiscal 2003 funding bills before it adjourned until next month. Justice said the department "will have to delay the award of funds until the fiscal 2003 appropriations are final."

But the mayors say the money already has been earmarked to help local police and firefighters upgrade their systems, and they are buckling under demands to provide services they cannot afford.

In a statement, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), said the money is overdue, and cities "have borne the burden of additional security costs since Sept. 11." The decision to delay it longer threatens hundreds of millions of dollars that states and cities have been counting on, he said.

"Cities will not receive critically needed assistance for local law enforcement and first responders until Congress and the [Bush] administration agree on a budget," Menino said.

According to J.R. Thomas, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, Justice has left first responders in limbo. The money is needed to help public-safety agencies bear staff and training costs and to improve the interoperability of communications systems across agencies and jurisdictions.

"We can write all the plans we want, and most communities now have terrorist plans, but it's the ability to respond in an effective and coordinated manner that's important," Thomas said.

Homeland security costs are especially daunting because of worsening budget shortfalls, local officials say.

USCM estimated that cities would spend more than $2.6 billion on additional security costs by the end of this year. And by holding up an estimated $1.5 billion in law enforcement and anti-terrorism assistance that Congress allocated to local police and fire departments, Justice is only making matters worse.

"Given that funds are already appropriated in the continuing resolution, it strikes the mayors as a shortsighted move and one that threatens public safety across the country," said Andy Solomon, a spokesman for USCM.

Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., which advises cities and counties on technology issues, said the delay also would hamper the government's ability to share information and interconnect federal, state and local authorities in the event of another terrorist attack.

"With the imperative to develop seamless systems that connect local and federal systems in a timely manner, this is the worst of times to pull funding that, in many cases, makes the intergovernmental system more effective," Toregas said.

"Creating a Department of Homeland Security without funding our first responders is like building a hospital without hiring doctors or nurses," said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who joined the mayors in criticizing the Justice Department's decision.

Some cities have taken some projects off-line because they are barred by law from spending money they don't have. As a result, cities may wind up footing bigger bills to restart projects, Toregas said.

"The reality is that the cumulative effect of the delay will be significant and may push projects to the infeasible range," he said.

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