Ensuring Hometown security - A Missed Opportunity
by Hon. Timothy C. McDonough, Chairman,
League of Municipalities Hometown Security Task Force
and Mayor, Hope Township
On the evening of September 11, 2001, when
the nation was in shock from a series of terrorist attacks,
members of Congress joined together on the steps of the
Capitol and sang God Bless America. It was described as
an unprecedented display of bipartisan grief and resolve.
What a difference a year makes.
Thirteen months later, the national wound
is healing, but the image of commercial jets deliberately
flying into buildings full of innocent people is forever
etched onto the American psyche. This is especially so
in New Jersey, which lost so many sons and daughters on
that sad day.
Thirteen months later, Americans realize
that safety is not a certainty and have adapted to new
security measures in airports and public buildings and
a new awareness of potential threats that were unthinkable
before September 11, 2001. This is especially so in New
Jersey, which was forced to deal with the real threat
of anthrax in the subsequent months.
Thirteen months later, America's cities
and towns have spent billions of local dollars to develop
new homeland security preparedness plans, create new regional
partnerships, carry out joint emergency drills, provide
security in the nation's airports, and restore confidence
in the safety and security of hometown America. This,
too, is especially so in New Jersey municipalities, which
have generously shared their resources to assist in New
York's recovery, while dealing with real threats, themselves.
And, thirteen months later, the 107th Congress
is prepared to recess shortly without passing homeland
security legislation that would, among other things, authorize
federal funds to support the work of first responders
in America's cities and towns. The bipartisan spirit of
September 11, 2001, is a distant memory. Instead partisanship
has ruled in the halls of Congress and between the White
House and Capitol Hill.
What a missed opportunity.
New Jersey municipalities are not likely
to see any action on a homeland security bill before Congress
recesses this week or any significant federal funding
in the near future.
What a disappointment.
It would be unfair to minimize the huge
challenge Congress and the President have faced in trying
to implement the largest governmental reorganization since
the Department of Defense was created after World War
II. But everyone promised to get the job done.
It would be similarly unfair to minimize
the huge challenge America's municipalities have faced
in taking on the new responsibility of being the front
line of homeland defense.
Recent National League of Cities (NLC) surveys
have shown that cities and towns of all sizes have updated
their emergency preparedness plans to address new threats
such as biological and chemical attacks, stepped up their
working relationships with colleagues in federal, state,
county, and neighboring municipal governments to ensure
effective collaborations, assessed risk factors and vulnerabilities,
and worked on improved communication systems - all at
a significant cost to hometown America.
But municipal leaders have found a way to
get this new job done while continuing to carry out all
the other local responsibilities without any new funding.
The unfulfilled promise of federal funds to support local
hometown security efforts could jeopardize local services
in the coming year. A recent NLC survey of municipal fiscal
conditions painted a bleak picture for local budgets which
have been hurt by both the economic downtown and the surge
in homeland security spending. For the first time since
1992, a majority of the surveyed finance officers said
their hometowns are less able to meet local financial
needs compared to previous year.
Local officials recognize the important
role they play in ensuring hometown security. But they
can't carry the financial burden alone without eventually
having to raise local taxes or cut local services. Neither
option is desirable -particularly when both Congress and
the President promised significant funding to America's
Congress and the President still have some
time to work out their differences and pass a homeland
security bill that will provide the framework for a unified
national response, improved communication, and financial
support to American's municipalities.
Once again, federal leaders might do well
to take a lesson from the local government play book when
it comes to dealing with new challenges - just do it.