Funding Sought for Homeland Security - But Basic Safety Services Face Cuts
Up to 50 new police recruits, continued funding for a new team of medical staff ready for bioterrorism emergencies and tougher security measures at county facilities are among the increased spending proposals for public safety in the fiscal 2003 budget recommended by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
As a legacy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, public safety has become a top priority even as other programs suffer cuts in the proposed $2.9 billion budget. But outside of homeland security measures, Duncan's recommendations include no significant new programs for the police, fire and corrections departments and in some instances call for reductions in services.
As it reviews the plan, to go into effect July 1, the County Council's public safety committee appears to be most concerned about the fire department budget, saying that Duncan's budget overlooks some basic services, particularly to the burgeoning upcounty area. The committee is recommending the addition of a fire code inspector, a position that was eliminated last year and never restored.
Council member Nancy Dacek (D-Upcounty) said she would like to see more firefighters upcounty, rather than transferring personnel from other stations, as Duncan's budget has recommended.
She also criticized the proposed spending plan for not allocating any money for new tankers or ladder trucks, an issue that many residents in the Darnestown area say contributed to three house fires causing extensive damage since last year.
A new tanker is being purchased for the Darnestown area this month, but the $240,000 cost is coming out of this fiscal year's fire department budget and contributions from the Greater Darnestown Civic Association and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.
Dacek said she wondered how much longer the county could depend on volunteers to provide basic services.
Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville) said that he would support raising income taxes to provide more services, particularly during a time of decreasing revenue. In 1999, Andrews voted against a cut in the income tax rate, which the council passed in a close vote.
"You can pay for a lot of firefighters with that kind of money," he said. "We do not need to start from the assumption that we always have the same amount of revenue. It would be wrong to suggest that the council has no choice but to cut to add in one area."
Fire administrator Gordon Aoyagi said some cuts were necessary, considering the decreased revenue, but said he hopes his department would get more money in future years.
"It's a hold-the-line budget," he said.
Many of the new public safety initiatives, such as the bioterrorism team, fall under the budgets of departments other than police or fire. The bioterrorism team, administered by the county's Department of Health and Human Services, includes two nurses, a manager and an epidemiologist who are coordinating the county's response to biohazards.
Duncan has proposed a pilot program to install cameras in three county parking garages in Bethesda and Silver Spring. Six new security officers and a new security planning manager would be added to improve security for county facilities and schools.
The budget calls for more police recruits, but given the difficulty finding candidates and the competition for applicants with other police departments in the region, the money may not be used, as in years past.
Duncan proposed expanding the size of the recruit class from 24 to 50 and adding a second class at a cost of $1.1 million. A proposed $10,000 would pay for recruitment efforts, such as job fairs.
The sheriff's office would receive a dog and handler for bomb detection and another officer would be added to the fire and rescue arson and bomb squad, under Duncan's recommendations.
Other spending increases for public safety include:
• Operating the new, 900-bed county jail in Clarksburg, which is expected to open this summer and is largely responsible for an 8 percent increase, to $41.2 million, in the corrections department's budget.
• Funding 13 staff positions added last year and increasing resources to meet the demands of a growing inmate population.
• Adding 20 red light cameras, for a total of 45.
• Adding two crossing guards for the opening of Newport Middle School in the fall.
• Creating a database system to organize the cases handled by the state's attorney office.
Duncan also is proposing to apply for federal grants to pay for additional security. One grant would pay for 32 officers who would be assigned to the county schools and Montgomery College.
Another grant would help hospitals monitor community health conditions, expand the bomb squad, hazardous materials and urban search and rescue teams, purchase tankers for firefighting and begin the planning for a bioterrorism response center.