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Tax cut, deficit jeopardize Homeland Security

YBOR CITY — Take a $674-billion tax cut proposal for the nation, combined with Florida’s possible excessive use of debt services, and you have a recipe for a dismal funding. At least that’s what Congressman Jim Davis, D-11, told Hillsborough County Sheriff Office deputies on Monday about the outlook for the Homeland Security budget.

Davis listened to the financial needs of first responders in Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties. Officials said these funds are necessary to continue Homeland Security in the Tampa Bay area.

“If we want to go to the next level, we’re going to need funding,” said Robert Ballou, head of the Emergency Management Department of the St. Petersburg Fire Department’s Search and Rescue Division. “But we’re hard-pressed to find those funds.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Florida’s Legislature dedicated more than $17 million to the state’s Homeland Security. Other funds have been made available for districts with grants.

Ballou said since the terrorist attacks, he has applied for at least six grants but has not received any so far.

“We have not been successful in the grant process,” Ballou said. “We have to rely on money through local funds. But we still have a city to run.”

While the governor may have to dip into debt services to pay for the costly class size amendment, Davis said funds remain tight for the state. They are especially scarce for Tampa Bay’s Homeland Security needs because it is one of the best-prepared areas in Florida and the county for a bioterrorism attack.

“It’s so hard to get funds here, because the rest of the country is behind,” Davis said. “But the continued success (for the Tampa area) is going to be dependent upon funding.”

Davis said that since Gov. Jeb Bush’s budget proposal, he has not heard about any additional funds made available for Florida’s Homeland Security.

Bush proposed $94 million for Homeland Security for the fiscal year 2003-04. About $80.5 million of that funding would come from the federal and state trust funds, while $13.6 is proposed to come from state revenue.

The funds would include spending for community services, education, health and law enforcement related to Homeland Security.

Chief Deputy Ken Pearson said funding is crucial for his department to provide first responders with a basic understanding of how to handle weapons of mass destruction. In addition, Pearson said it is important that the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office maintains intelligence reports about detainees.

“We sometimes don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Pearson said. “We’re funded to provide law enforcement responsibilities, but we’re not funded for what might be needed.”

Davis agreed with similar requests for more resource funding from officials but said the legislature must support other priorities first.

“The legislature is fighting to keep funds in place for schooling,” Davis said. “I don’t see them setting aside additional money for Homeland Security.”

Davis added that Florida needs to be prepared to protect the public in case of a possible terrorism attack.

“We’ve learned to manage the risk in terms of a hurricane,” Davis said. “We can’t tell the public we’re not prepared to handle such a high-risk situation.”

Sheriff Cal Henderson echoed Davis’ comment by using an “analogy” to the disaster of Hurricane Andrew.

“You prepare for a hurricane, and you can do exactly everything right, but you get Hurricane Andrew, and you don’t know what to do,” Henderson said.

If more money is allocated for Homeland Security to the Tampa Bay area, Davis said he would like to see it used to make further changes at the Ports of Tampa and Manatee, as well as Tampa International Airport.

“There’s an enormous press on Tallahassee for dollars to go to general funding,” Davis said. “I feel a heavy response on the federal level … but we need to work together with the government and state legislature.”