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Federal terror alerts cost state $12M

(The following story by Jonathan Schuppe of Newhouse News Service appeared on the New Jersey Journal website on June 21.)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- New Jersey and its municipalities spent more than $12 million responding to the last three federal terror alerts, most of it on overtime pay, but have been reimbursed for less than a third of those expenses, state records show.

The State Police and other state agencies incurred $10.7 million of the costs, and local police departments had to pay $1.5 million.

Nearly nine out of every 10 dollars went for overtime pay to guard bridges, tunnels, power plants, oil refineries and other "critical infrastructure" sites considered potential targets, state officials said. The rest went to install last-minute security equipment at some of those sites.

The federal government has reimbursed $3.9 million of those expenses, according to data provided by the state Attorney General's Office, which oversees homeland security funding. The expenses were provided by the Attorney General's Office in response to a request under the state Open Public Records Act.

New Jersey's overtime bills reflect a national dilemma over the color-coded threat system used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to keep the public aware of potential terror strikes.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the introduction of the five-color threat system, the federal government has raised the threat level to "high" - the second-highest, signified by the color orange - five times. The overtime bill for state and local governments has surpassed $100 million nationally for the three orange alerts since March 2003, when the federal government began monitoring the costs.

Those costs have led some to question whether federal officials have been too quick to declare orange alerts. In response, Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, has said he would raise the threshold for declaring the alerts and confine them to smaller areas.

Ridge also has agreed to allow state and local governments to use a portion of their domestic preparedness grants, earmarked for equipment and training, for overtime.

"Since we're the lead agency for raising the threat level, we're also concerned with reimbursing the costs," Ridge spokeswoman Valerie Smith said.

Municipal governments have been almost completely repaid, but the State Police and smaller units from other state departments - including the NJ Transit Police and the New Jersey National Guard - are out about $8.2 million in orange-alert overtime bills, state officials said.

One reason for the disparity, say state officials, is that the reimbursement formula used by the federal government assumes local governments and the state split overtime costs evenly, when the state actually shoulders most of the expense.

For example, the state spent $6 million in overtime during the March 2003 alert, while local governments spent $286,000. Local governments were almost completely repaid, while the state received only $2.5 million toward its overtime bill.

State officials also say they have elected not to use homeland security money awarded for equipment and training to cover overtime costs.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Ellen Mellody, a spokeswoman for Gov. James E. McGreevey. "The state has, time and again, put out money to protect these targets, but clearly it is in need of more federal funding to protect itself."

State officials say they are now trying to make protection measures more efficient. The State Police recently created a homeland security branch that reorganized the deployment of troopers. The Attorney General's Office says it is becoming more "precise" in choosing where to place guards. More motion detectors and closed-circuit televisions are being installed at sensitive sites. And the state is considering the creation of regional police task forces to buttress state personnel.

Meanwhile, a few municipal governments are still waiting for reimbursements for overtime costs incurred during the last orange alert, during the winter holidays.

Newark is one of them. Anthony Ambrose, the city's acting police director, said he is expecting a check any day now for $93,000.

He sees the overtime bills as an inevitable cost of today's public safety system.

"This is one way policing has changed since 9/11. It's just another thing we have to monitor and take on as our responsibilities," Ambrose said. But he added, "If these orange alerts continued, it could be a drain."

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

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