First responders in 'dire need'

Saying first responders are in "dire need" of help, two Democratic members

of Congress want to boost homeland security funding to the nation's police,

firefighters, emergency and public health workers by more than $10 billion

total for this year and the next.

Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) want to double first responder funding — to $7.1 billion — in fiscal 2003. Late on Feb. 13, Congress approved an omnibus appropriations bill that allocates $3.5 billion to local communities. The pair had sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee to include an additional $3.5 billion, but said they would settle for including the additional funds in the fiscal 2003 supplemental bill.

They also want to nearly triple — to $10.6 billion — what President

Bush has proposed for the fiscal 2004 budget, which also is $3.5 billion.

"There's a threat to the American heartland," said Skelton, the ranking

member of the House Armed Services Committee, at a press conference with

Harman Feb. 13. The two Democrats plan to introduce a House resolution for the

additional funding.

The pair also sent a letter dated Feb. 10 to Reps. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and David Obey (D-Wis.) — the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the House Appropriations Committee — regarding increasing first responder funding in the fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill and for a more rapid disbursal by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office of Domestic Preparedness.

They said they've spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other administration officials about more first responder funding.

With the nation's threat level high and the United States poised for

a war against Iraq, terrorist attacks in the country are certain, Skelton

said. "There's a dire need, and there's a shortfall."

Harman, who is on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,

said the $3.5 billion in the fiscal 2003 omnibus bill contains only $870

million in "new money," which she defined as funding for areas not earmarked

before.

Regardless of its allocation, she said it's not enough. There needs

to be a "right sized homeland security budget that funds the war at home,"

she said.

Indeed, in the past several months, state and local government officials

have complained — sometimes bitterly — about the federal government's

slow pace in providing such funds. While law enforcement continues to tap

into existing grants programs available to them, they said not one penny

of new homeland security funding has become available. The federal government

has largely provided new funding to improve the public health infrastructure.

Both Democrats said they think they'll pick up considerable support

from their colleagues.

To underscore the need, Harman introduced Chief R. Doyle Campbell, a

member of Los Angeles County's Sheriff's Department and head of the homeland

security office there, at the press conference.

The county — the largest in the country with 88 cities, 55 police departments

and 33 fire departments — needs at least $200 million to get to a "reasonable"

level of security, she said.

Campbell provided a list of improvements that require funding, including

interoperable communications equipment, training for biological, chemical

and radiological events, air respirators, and bomb disposal containers.

Law enforcement organizations, he said, have had to "shift gear drastically"

since Sept. 11, 2001, to deal with new types of threats.

He also said the county needs financial help from the federal government

because the weak economy is forcing the county to cut back funding.

Local officials projected that cities and counties have expended more

than $2.6 billion in providing security to their citizens. The day before

the press conference, the National League of Cities (NLC) released a survey

of 322 cities and towns indicating that bad fiscal conditions are forcing

cities to cut back police and firefighter positions.

Sixteen percent of cities cut police positions in the past year and

another 8 percent expect to cut police slots in the near future. Nine percent

of cities had forced cuts in firefighter positions and another 7 percent

plan to make similar cuts.

At a Feb. 12 press conference, John DeStefano Jr., the mayor of New

Haven, Conn., and NLC president, said the proposed 2004 federal budget short-changes

municipalities in local law enforcement grant programs and again promises

first responder funding even though cities are still waiting for similar

funds pledged in last year's budget.

"But this is like robbing Peter to pay Peter — taking money away from

police programs and then giving some of it back," he said in his statement.

He added that the NLC would push for a greater partnership with the federal

government in procuring funds and stimulating the economy.

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