Bush budget squeezes first responders

International Association of Chiefs of Police

No one expected to be spared from President Bush’s proposed belt-tightening budget, but police officers, firefighters and others feel particularly squeezed.

“I think ‘surprised’ is understated,” said Thomas Frazier, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, whose membership includes 57 law enforcement agencies.

“We certainly didn’t anticipate a lack of support at this point in time for public safety,” Frazier said. “These departments have had support for many years…and to see the president zero it out of the budget is disturbing at best.”

According to the proposed fiscal 2007 budget, the president would substantially decrease or eliminate funding for several major programs that first responders have relied on to buy technology, interoperable communications equipment, gear and vehicles.

For example, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program has a $480 million budget this year, which includes $140 million for technology and interoperable communications. But the president has proposed cutting the program’s budget to about $102 million for 2007. The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which has about $416 million, would lose all funding.

Bush administration officials said the programs have either reached their goals or have not shown results. The administration’s spending plan shows increases for other grant programs such as the Urban Area Security Initiative, which would get $838 million in fiscal 2007, and Targeted Infrastructure Protection, which would get $600 million in fiscal 2007. But first responders said those budgets are a result of consolidating several other funding programs.

Harlin McEwen, a retired police chief who now leads the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the COPS cutback “will have a big impact because the grants…have been a tremendous help in improving interoperability.”

Frazier, director of the COPS office from 1999 to 2000, said funding cuts could hamper law enforcement efforts to develop information-sharing systems. “That’s an all-crimes issue,” he said. “If you have good data interoperability,… you will be able to find [more] hidden associations than before, not only in terrorism but in drugs and right on down the line.”

Matt Socknat, government affairs director for the National Sheriffs’ Association, said even the Homeland Security Department’s $400 million Local Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program is on the chopping block.

“It’s just a real disturbing trend since 2001,” he said. “We’ve seen funding for a lot of these programs reduced by more than half.”

Socknat said sheriffs’ offices are adding responsibilities, such as helping curb illegal immigration. But if they’re not given the proper resources, they won’t be able to fulfill those extra duties, he added.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the highest ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the cuts have become unfunded mandates and make it difficult for first responders and others to do their jobs. But he said that in budget talks with other committee members, he has heard significant support for restoring those funds.

“A lot of us are real concerned that our president talks tough on terrorism, but when it comes time to put the resources there to really address it, he comes up woefully inadequate,” Thompson said. “Nobody who has any real knowledge of our vulnerabilities feels good about these cuts.”

Firefighters would also experience cuts in federal grant programs. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program would be cut from $545 million this year to a proposed $293 million in 2007, and the $110 million budget for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program would be eliminated under the president’s proposed budget.

Socknat said he would be shocked if Congress didn’t restore the funding. But he added that Congress is working to try to balance the budget and that could mean asking law enforcement agencies and others to make difficult decisions about which initiatives to fund and which to cut.

“Who is to say these anti-gang initiatives aren’t as important as Internet crimes [or] trafficking of children?” Socknat said. “It’s very difficult.”

NEXT STORY: GSA considering reduction in force

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