Cities 'angry' over lack of homeland support

City officials demanded that Congress and the Bush administration provide the billions of dollars they promised for first responders

Nearly 100 mayors and police and fire chiefs from across the nation last week demanded that Congress and the Bush administration provide the billions of dollars they promised for first responders — the emergency workers who are the first line of homeland defense.

About 50 mayors and 40 police and fire chiefs gathered Sept. 26 at a Capitol Hill press conference to sharply criticize the federal government for not being a good partner in creating a homeland defense. They said security demands are overtaxing cities' emergency personnel and equipment.

"I guess what I'm really here to say more than anything, on behalf of many of the police chiefs who are here, [is] that we're really angry and frustrated," Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver Sr said.

Oliver said Detroit has special security concerns because it is near the Canadian border and has the largest Arab-American community outside the Middle East. "We're putting our people in harm's way," he said, "and yet there's this rhetoric and there's this debate and there's this gamesmanship that's going on now at the White House and at the Congress. We're tired of it, and we're here to say we need the money."

President Bush earlier this year promised $3.5 billion for first responders, but Congress has not passed the majority of the spending measures for the federal government's fiscal 2003 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. Also, Bush signed a $29 billion homeland security supplemental spending bill this summer, but vetoed about $2.5 billion in homeland security money earmarked for state and local governments, officials said.

That money would have been used for firefighters, port security, new bomb- detection equipment at airports and emergency communications equipment. Only bioterrorism preparedness funds, about $1.1 billion, have been disbursed to states.

Also attending the event was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who said the federal government should send the funds directly to cities, rather than to the state governments.

"The way the system is currently set up is counterproductive," Clinton said. "I think there are many good reasons why some funding should go through the states.... But think of it this way: If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and if I need to get quickly from one point to the next, I go straight there."

Clinton introduced a bill in November 2001 called the Homeland Security Block Grant Act, which is modeled after the Community Development Block Grant program.

That program has provided annual direct financial assistance to qualifying local governments since 1974.

"It's the only piece of legislation that responds directly to our needs," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, president of the U.S. Mayors Conference.

However, local officials may face an uphill battle. The previous week, during a National Governors Association press conference on homeland security, several state governors said they would not support such a block grant measure.

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