INSIDE WASHINGTON/Locals want input in agency formation
City and county leaders are calling for greater say in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the new Cabinet-level agency that will be devoted to domestic defense. “We at the local level feel left out of this,” says Carol Moehrle, director of the Nez Perce County, Idaho, North Central Health Department. “Whether it is funding, communications or organization, we just need to have some assurance [the federal government is] not going to forget us out here.”
Congress could conceivably create the Department of Homeland Security by Sept. 11. However, legislation authorizing the agency more likely will be finished by October, just in time for the midterm elections and three months before the agency is scheduled to open its doors for business.
As plans for the agency are formed, local governments are being left out of the loop, says New Haven, Conn., Mayor John Stefano, who is the first vice president for the National League of Cities. “I think it is unfortunate we are going to approach the one-year anniversary [of the terrorist attacks] without substantial participation and substantial involvement with the federal government,” he notes. “It has been frustrating for everybody.”
Local governments contend that cities and counties are not represented adequately in discussions about the formation of a Homeland Security department or its functions. For example, in June, President Bush named Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams to the Homeland Security Advisory Council, making Williams the only local government respresentative on the council. Noting that counties are not represented at all, the National Association of Counties is attempting to persuade the Administration to add a county official.
Local governments are especially eager for a voice in decisions related to law enforcement. For example, they are concerned about the lack of communication between federal and local law enforcement agencies, particularly regarding the sparse information provided by federal authorities during past nationwide alerts.
The White House is beginning to recognize that concern. For example, at the June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Ridge told attendees that the Bush Administration is working to enhance the Homeland Security Advisory System. “Mayors and law enforcement have a legitimate need to know about serious and credible terrorist threats against their communities,” Ridge said. “That is why we designed the Homeland Security Advisory System, and that is why we’re working on a system to transmit additional threat information to mayors.”
Mayors welcomed Ridge’s comments as well as his willingness to consider earmarking 10 percent of domestic terrorism funds to help pay for police overtime. “Police overtime costs have been draining city budgets since 9-11, so we were pleased that Governor Ridge has talked about possibly dedicating 10 percent of the new anti-terrorism funding for local governments to police overtime,” says Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In addition to addressing law enforcement issues, Ridge told mayors that the grant process for homeland defense funds will be simplified “so [local officials] don’t have to shop around at five different agencies or hire a detective to find out where the money has been squirreled away.” That is good news, but local officials also want assurance that the process will minimize competition. “When the block grants come down, I hope there would be a structure that doesn’t pit one [locality] against another,” says Karen Miller, Boone County (Mo.) commissioner and president-elect for NACo.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.