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Wednesday, March 19

State, local officials fret about increased costs of terror alert

By Ledyard King

WASHINGTON -- Even as federal officials touted a new national security plan to safeguard highways, borders and food supplies against terrorist attack, local and state officials battling budget shortfalls said it would be hard to maintain heightened vigilance without financial help. Governors have begun deploying National Guard troops and law enforcement officers to airports, nuclear plants and other ``critical locations'' as part of ``Operation Liberty Shield,'' a Bush administration initiative that coincides with Monday night's elevation of the nation's terrorism alert to Code Orange -- the second highest level. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters Tuesday that he spoke with officials from all 50 states as well as representatives of sensitive private facilities, asking them to beef up security around potentially vulnerable targets such as stockyards, train stations and chemical plants. ``The first priority that everyone accepted last night, without hesitation, was the need to work together to make sure that we implemented Liberty Shield. No one asked about additional finances,'' he said in response to a reporter's question about the cost of security. ``Everybody understood the number one priority is to protect America and our way of life. And we'll see what happens in terms of whether there's an ability to share or defray some of these costs at the federal level at a later time,'' Ridge said. But costs are weighing on the minds of many state and local officials who must dip into their meager coffers to pay for extra security. ``It wasn't the focus last night, but it was the focus when I met with the governor today,'' said Ohio Director of Public Safety Kenneth Morckel. Ohio, which is trying to cover a more than $650 million budget shortfall by June 30, has increased police presence on highways leading into major cities and opened truck inspection stations around the clock. The state also began manning its emergency operations center that will communicate with Ohio government agencies and local police and fire departments. New Haven, Conn., Mayor John DeStefano, president of the National League of Cities, said the issue of federal reimbursement is a chief concern. ``I'll deal with the local drug dealer, but I can't deal with Osama bin Laden,'' DeStefano said Tuesday. ``We'll do what we have to do, but we didn't sign up for national defense.'' New Haven has added more security to its port and increased patrols around mosques and temples, he said. ``Operation Liberty Shield'' calls for a coordinated effort among federal, state and local agencies as the United States braces for possible retaliatory strikes from terrorists if the country attacks Iraq. Ridge said there will be more Coast Guard, air and sea patrols off the nation's shores, more escorts of passenger ships and hundreds more agents guarding the border. Federal officials have alerted state and local health departments, hospitals and medical care providers to report any unusual disease or disease patterns. Inspections of imported food will be stepped up and the Internet will be monitored for signs of a potential terrorist attack or cyber-terrorism. Federal officials also are detaining asylum applicants from nations where al-Qaida, al-Qaida sympathizers and other terrorist groups are known to have operated. ``The increase in the threat level is a signal to law enforcement, government officials at all levels and representatives of the private sector to implement specific protective measures, just as they have done on two previous occasions,'' Ridge said. The terror alert status was increased to orange during last year's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and, last month, around the Muslim holy period of the Hajj. With war against Iraq imminent and the nation's terror alert at high, New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Senate Democrats may ask for as much as $100 billion over the next decade to help localities prepare for threats. The proposal, which Democrats will try to fold into a 2004 federal budget blueprint, is aimed at stepping up pressure on the Bush administration to make a long-term commitment to homeland security funding. This request would come on top of war costs, which some lawmakers expect could be as high as $100 billion. Despite the paucity of federal aid, DeStefano said he has few options when the federal government tells him to secure his city. ``You go out and provide the additional security and safety (and) local taxpayers pay for it. It's not a choice,'' he said. ``We're responding to what we think needs to be done here.'' (Contributing: John Machacek, GNS)