WASHINGTON – Congress needs to fulfill its promise to help fund the fight on terrorism at home and approve the $3.5 billion that was supposed to go to first-responders, the National Association of Counties said Wednesday.
The money was included in the fiscal 2003 budget, which is still being debated by Congress, months after it was due.
“There is frustration that so much time has elapsed. We have a new Department of Homeland Security, but not funding for first-responders,” said Montgomery County Council member Marilyn J. Praisner, who sits on the National Association of Counties Homeland Security Task.
Praisner said the goal of the association’s news conference Wednesday was to “shake a collective county finger at Congress” and inform the public of what is going on.
The first-responder funding is included in the omnibus fiscal 2003 budget bill that is being debated in the Senate this week — almost four months after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. While Congress has fought over the budget, the government has been operating under extensions of the fiscal 2002 budget, which did not include the first-responder money.
“There seems to be an understanding that the threat of future attacks is real, but help from Congress to combat those attacks is just a fantasy,” said Ken Mayfield, president of the counties association.
Mayfield said that federal help is needed because the struggling economy and budget cuts at the state level are making it difficult for counties to fund existing services, let alone new programs for homeland security.
“Mayfield is right on the money,” said Joseph Herr, Howard County fire and rescue chief.
Herr remembers hearing talk in April of the $3.5 billion, of which Maryland was to get $65 million.
“None of it came,” said Herr, who directs emergency management for the county. “There were meetings to plan how to best utilize the funds, but nothing ever showed up.”
Even without funding, he said, Howard County has revised emergency operation plans, trained personnel and other agencies, upgraded emergency systems and attended monthly meetings with other agencies to discuss what needs to be done to be better prepared for an attack.
“We have not been sitting back,” Herr said. “There are those everyday things we have to do and on top of that all of this new stuff. It leaves us in a position of putting the internal priorities on the back burner to get things done — we don’t want to be unprepared.”
Brad Frantz, director of emergency management for Garrett County, said his rural county may not seem to face a very large terror threat, but it still needs resources.
“We don’t have the wherewithal to purchase what we need to without federal funding,” said Frantz, of the 30,000-resident county. “We have very limited resources and could be quickly overwhelmed if something were to happen. We simply don’t have the manpower to deal with it, and we don’t have tax base.
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens said she made an “unexaggerated” request for $40 million in federal aid and got “a couple hundred thousand.”
“It’s just unbelievable dollars haven’t come to local governments,” Owens said.
Her county is home to Fort Meade. The county has also lost some of its police and firefighters to military call-ups, she said.
“Every penny would help,” Owens said.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a prepared statement Wednesday that funding homeland security “is our nation’s top priority.”
“Our first responders sacrifice a great deal to protect our communities, so it is our duty to provide them with the funding that they need to keep their departments running safely and efficiently,” his statement said. “I agree that Congress must complete work on the federal budget for 2003 this month.”
For counties, the help will come none too soon.
“Local governments are united on this issue,” said Praisner, who is also president of the Maryland Association of Counties. “It doesn’t matter where you live.”