Cities seek federal support

Since last September, America's cities have strengthened security at airports and public facilities, conducted vulnerability assessments of potential targets, deployed chemical and biological surveillance technology, and improved communications and protective gear for first responders.

But they have done so largely without help from either the Bush administration or Congress.

That's according to half a dozen mayors who discussed their cities' homeland security efforts Sept. 9 during a Washington, D.C., press conference sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The mayors said information sharing and the use of best practices is greater among municipalities, and the federal/local relationship is stronger than before.

However, they said much more needs to be done. The mayors said their budgets are stretched to their limits, and in some cases, they've had to raise taxes to pay for security, including overtime pay for police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

One by one, the mayors demanded that federal officials live up to their pledge to help cities with such expenses.

"We're not asking the federal government to be creative," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We're asking the federal government to fund at least a fair share for homeland defense, for common defense."

Philadelphia Mayor John Street said, "We in cities are being asked to do more with less. We feel today that we're being left behind and cities are being taken advantage of."

Akron, Ohio, which has a population of 220,000, has spent about $2 million to secure public facilities, said Mayor Don Plusquellic. But that may not include additional costs, such as overtime pay for police officers.

Mayor Betty Flores of Laredo, Texas, said she has been asking the federal government for the past two years to help improve border security near her city. She recently raised property taxes 4 percent to fund added security measures, and she said many border and customs agents are leaving her city for better pay and positions at other federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration.

Formulas for doling out federal grants for security improvements also need to be re-examined, she said. Although the state health department provided $300,000 in federal bioterrorism funds to her city, Flores said officials didn't take into account the cities across the border. Like many border cities, Laredo's daytime population swells to 750,000 from the influx of Mexican workers.

Scott King, mayor of Gary, Ind., said assessments that cities are more secure than a year ago are exaggerated. A report card would show a "series of incompletes at best." To help local law enforcement agencies, he called for full funding of two federal grant programs: the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which faces a proposed 80 percent cut in the fiscal 2003 budget, and the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant program, which faces a 23 percent proposed budget cut.

The mayors also called for direct federal funding to cities. Earlier this year, President Bush proposed $3.5 billion to help bolster security, of which 25 percent would be given to states and 75 percent would be earmarked for first responders. However, national groups representing municipal officials said they feared those earmarked funds would be chipped away by state governments facing severe revenue shortfalls.

Many of the nation's cities are calling for homeland security block grants, in which the federal government would directly provide funds to municipalities. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has proposed such a bill, and it is supported by several other senators.

O'Malley pointed out eight measures in which the federal government could help cities bolster security:

* There should be one federal watch list, instead of 58, that can be easily accessed by authorized law enforcement officers at every government level.

* Every metropolitan area should have intelligence units to coordinate all policing actions.

* Every metropolitan area should have bio-surveillance technology.

* Every metropolitan area should perform vulnerability assessments of critical infrastructures.

* Every metropolitan area should have mitigation strategies in case of attack.

* Every metropolitan area should have updated emergency response plans.

* Every metropolitan area should have an interoperable communications system.

* First responders should be properly equipped to handle simultaneous emergencies.

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