Budget-strapped states get wiser with terror alerts

Friday, May 23, 2003

On a normal day at the Missouri Capitol, three private security guards stand watch over the metal detector at the main door. Now, with the nation on a high terror alert, they are joined by a single, full-time police officer with a gun.

In many parts of America, that qualifies as "enhanced security."

State officials responsible for tightening security are having to weigh the threat of terrorism against the worst budget woes in a half-century. They say they are also learning from experience how to use their resources more intelligently.

In Wisconsin, for example, police departments that increased patrols during previous alerts are now adding them only around critical installations, such as water treatment plants.

"Every time we go through this, we get a little smarter about how we can meet this threat within the existing budgets," said Ed Gleason, the Wisconsin emergency director whose state faces a $3.2 billion deficit through mid-2005.

Doing less

While terrorist targets such as New York and Washington are again beefing up security, other state and local governments are doing a little less than they did for the last "orange" terror alert, during the Iraq war.

That alert lasted a month and stretched many security budgets to their limits. So when the government raised the terror alert to high on Tuesday, some emergency management officials set their priorities more carefully.

"The threat advisory system really is, at this point, just that -- it's advice. It's not a requirement to do anything, it's not really even a specific request to do things," said Michael Wermuth, policy analyst at the Rand research group and project director for a presidential advisory panel that assessed the nation's ability to respond to terrorism.

Missouri responded to the last alert by spreading more police around the Capitol complex, posting law officers at key bridges in St. Louis and Kansas City and opening a 24-hour emergency operations center.

"We're not doing those things this time," said Tim Daniel, the state homeland security adviser and a retired Army colonel.

One reason is that there is no specific threat against bridges. But another reason is financial. Gov. Bob Holden is already summoning lawmakers back for a special session on a budget that he claims is $367 million out of balance.

"If you look at what New York is doing and Washington is doing, they're doing it because they're able to pay for it," Daniel said.

New York has been on a constant high alert since the World Trade Center attack. The same intelligence that led the federal government to raise its alert level this week also prompted the New York Police Department to begin spending about $700,000 a day on security -- twice as much as it had been.

Some are reacting to the latest terror warning about the way they would to a weather forecast -- the closer the storm seems to their home, the more likely they are to listen.

At a sporting goods store in Golden Valley, Minn., Mike Hanson knew that the orange level was second from the top on the terror alert scale. But he said that was all he really knew or cared about it, and no terror alert level would change his plans to be fishing for this weekend's bass opener.

"If something happens in my immediate area, then I'd probably give it more thought," said Hanson, 36, of Anoka, Minn. "I don't even know why we really have it."

Few state or local officials question the need for the terror alert system. But some do question what to do about it.

Ross Litman, sheriff of a Minnesota county that runs from the Lake Superior port city of Duluth to the Canadian border, said his financial resources are maxed out. Litman said he has eight vacant positions frozen and has not been able to do a routine patrol on the 60-mile border.

He wonders how the department could handle a red-level alert -- the highest possible terrorist warning.

"We're having trouble just doing normal duties rather than dealing with a heightened alert," Litman said.

In Columbus, Ohio, fire department officials have boosted staffing levels in response to the terror alert, meaning 12-hour overtime shifts for firefighters who normally work 24 hours at a stretch. Battalion chief Mike Fultz said if the department does not receive federal reimbursement, it may have to cut back on buying items such as pencils, pads, toilet paper, even fire axes.

"Reducing service would be the last resort," Fultz said. But "you can only tighten the belt so far."

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