State, local officials concerned with unfunded federal mandates

Posted May 01, 2011, at 12:33 p.m.
Last modified May 01, 2011, at 3:18 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Congress moves to cut federal spending, state and local officials say some of those cuts amount to shifting costs from the federal budget to local taxpayers. They argue Congress should repeal mandates if it is not going to pay for at least part of the cost.

“We have been appreciative of the fact in the past that we could use these homeland security funds for needed equipment and training,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association. “These cuts are going to hurt.”

Among the more than $38 billion in cuts in the current federal budget year, made last month, were grant programs for law enforcement, fire departments and other first responder agencies. What disturbs many is that Congress did not ease any mandates with those cuts.

For example, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all public safety radio systems adopt new “narrow band” radios for communications by the end of 2012. The equipment is expensive, and while some agencies, such as the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, have purchased the equipment already in part with federal grants, many agencies have not.

“We have not even started,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randy Liberty. “I have 16 cruisers that will need those radios, and they cost $3,000 each and I don’t know where we will find the money.”

As with other sheriffs, his office is almost all funded through the property tax. He does not want to go to property tax payers to pay for an unfunded federal mandate.

“I view the property tax as an 80-year-old widow trying to make a decision between medication, heating oil and food,” he said. “I will do everything to avoid raising the property tax.”

He agreed with Ross that many small agencies are also facing a serious crunch with the FCC mandate a little more than a year and a half away, and many are scrambling just to keep afloat.

“I don’t think most of the small towns have converted,” said Jim Ryan, director of the Penobscot Regional Dispatch Center which handles all public safety dispatching in the county, except Bangor. “A few have, but this is an expensive proposition for these small towns with one firetruck and all volunteers.”

He said the FCC mandate extends not only to the two-way communication radios but also to pagers. He said the pagers are $300 each and that is expensive for a small department that depends on 20 or so volunteers.

“These cuts will also affect the larger agencies,” Ross said. “”A lot of police and fire equipment and training has been paid for with grants.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she tried to limit the cuts in Homeland Security grants which have paid for a lot of new equipment and training for first responders since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“All of these cuts are going to have consequences,” she said, “Unfortunately there is no line item for waste, fraud and abuse and duplication and overlap in the budget. We have to make budget cuts to reduce federal spending as part of reducing the federal budget deficit.”

Collins said there are efforts to keep the various federal grant programs for public safety from being eliminated, but she expects there will be fewer than in past years.

The federal government puts mandates on local and state governments in many ways. Another example is special education which has never reached its promised level of federal funding. In addition, there are many regulations that require expenditures.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Congress should consider repealing or delaying mandates such as the FCC narrow banding requirement because of the reduction in federal assistance.

“We passed legislation back in 1995, in my first month in the United States Senate to ban unfunded mandates,” she said. “As we go through this very wrenching process regarding reducing our budget, we need to look again at what we require in legislation.”

Snowe agreed there will have to be reductions in federal aid to states and local governments as part of the effort to cut federal spending.

“We are looking at a crisis in the federal debt,” she said. “We have to reduce our spending but we should not shift responsibilities to the states or cities.”

Both senators said that as the budget for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 is written, they will seek to minimize cuts in aid programs to help state and local governments meet the mandates set by the federal government.

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