Local Officials to Get Fed Help for Homeland Security

A proposed federal homeland-security department would help local officials gather information and find resources to fight terrorism more easily, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told the nation's mayors Monday.

Ridge said the agency, which President Bush proposed earlier this month, would eliminate overlapping responsibilities of federal agencies.

"He doesn't want to make 100 phone calls to find out how things are going. He wants to make one. I suppose you feel the same way," he said at the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he was greeted warmly.

The proposed department would absorb the Secret Service, Coast Guard, immigration and customs services and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, consolidating 169,000 federal employees into one agency with a budget of $37.4 billion.

It would be the most extensive restructuring of the federal government in more than 50 years, though it would exclude the largest intelligence operations, including the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency.

Ridge said the FBI and CIA should remain separate from the new agency and the department should be "a customer of these agencies, not their master."

Mayors used the event to press for direct federal funding of their anti-terrorism efforts and to ask that Washington save a program that provides federal money to put local police on the streets.

A mayors committee passed a resolution over the weekend urging Washington to distribute homeland-security block grants directly to cities and counties. Bush has proposed sending about $3.5 billion in such grants to the states, with three-fourths of the money targeted for local governments.

Ridge tried to assure the mayors that their share of the funds would not get lost at their statehouses.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the mayors conference president, pressed Ridge to give the aid directly to cities while introducing him. But he praised the idea of a new homeland-security department.

"Mayors want this department to be in place as soon as possible so we can expedite resources to American cities," he said.

Mayors also urged federal funds for overtime costs for their emergency personnel and continued federal money for local police officers.

"When the 911 call comes in, it's going to be our police officers who respond," said Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell.

Ridge said it was unlikely the federal government would create a specific fund to reimburse overtime, but he said Washington may allow block grants to cover those costs.

Ridge also said the federal program paying for local police officers would likely be phased out. Its funding would likely be combined with new federal funds to create a larger pool of money to give local officials, he said.