Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Cost of security upgrade hurts heartland in US

ORANGE ALERT Away from major urban centers, officials complain that security upgrades starve them of resources, with no compensation in sight


For cash-strapped US cities and states, this week's heightened national-threat alert level has reignited concerns about costs alongside fears of a new terror attack.

From overtime for police officers to extra patrols at key facilities and borders, cities nationwide must spend tens of millions of dollars each week for the additional security measures, money some local officials say they do not have.

"It's enormously frustrating," said Randy King, spokesman for the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a state capital of 49,000 people near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

"All of it costs money, lots of money, and there's no federal reimbursement," he said.

On Sunday, the US Department of Homeland Security raised the color-coded terror alert level to "high" orange from "elevated" yellow -- the fourth such move this year.

Lifting the level triggers a raft of automatic additional federal security precautions, and serves as a guideline for cities and states.

"We need to recognize that every time the government ratchets up the threat level, we force the state and local government officials to make a choice," said David Heyman, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"These are officials who are struggling with huge budget shortfalls and they have to choose between protecting their communities and slashing other programs. That's difficult today," he said.

While officials acknowledge the additional costs, they say you cannot put a price tag on security.

A survey by the US Conference of Mayors earlier this year showed cities spent about US$70 million per week on extra security measures when the alert level was raised to orange.

"State and local governments can't afford to constantly be on a high state of alert," said analyst Charles Pena at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"So at some point ... they're likely to say: `Sorry. We can't afford to do it this time,' -- especially considering all the false warnings," he said.

Security experts and local officials have criticized the system in the past, arguing that it was overused, ineffective and too much of a strain on tight budgets. But experts also say the Department of Homeland Security has fine-tuned the system and raised the bar for alerts.

For that reason, Heyman said: "We need to take this recent raising of the alert level more seriously."

But a Democratic congressional staffer dealing with homeland security said the financial burden was too high. He said his office got frequent calls from frustrated local officials asking for help to pay for the tighter security.

"The current alert-level system doesn't do much but scare people and cost a lot of money," he said.

In New York, which has been on "orange alert" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and spends an estimated US$5 million a week on additional security, National Guard units were deployed at airports, bridges and tunnels following Sunday's announcement, and more police were sent to vital infrastructure and tourist spots.

But elsewhere in the US, the response was more reserved.

Donald Williamson, director of communications for the city of Akron, Ohio, which has a population of 217,000 people, said security was already tight.

"There's not much more we can do," he said.

Williamson said the city was currently spending an additional US$35,000 every week to pay for overtime and security upgrades.

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