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Prospects rise for communications funding

Erie County wants federal money to help pay for a communications system that would allow police, fire and emergency crews from different localities to talk to each other during a disaster.

Chances of obtaining such funds have improved now that the Buffalo Niagara region is back on a list of communities eligible for a federal anti-terrorism grant program, local officials said Friday.

About 80 percent of the money Erie County plans to request from the Urban Area Security Initiative would be used for the communication system, Emergency Services Commissioner Kevin Comerford said.

Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Buffalo and 38 other cities facing a moderate terrorist threat could seek a share of $336 million.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, convened political and local emergency services officials from Erie and Niagara counties to discuss applying for the anti-terrorism allotment.

The congressman brought Homeland Security officials to a meeting in the Erie County Emergency Command Center in Cheektowaga so they could answer local officials' questions about the grant program.

Separately Friday, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said she had met with Chertoff last week in an attempt to persuade him that U.S. border inspections should be moved to the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge.

"I left it pessimistic," Slaughter said of her talk with Chertoff.

Canada has resisted the Bush administration's desire to fingerprint travelers who decide not to cross the bridge if they're referred to a secondary, more thorough inspection.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer issued a statement saying he would hold Justice Department and Homeland Security officials' "feet to the fire until they forge a final resolution" on a shared border plan.

Schumer wrote U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales asking him to intervene in talks between U.S. and Canadian officials.

"There is every reason to do shared border management -- enhanced security via international police cooperation, increased trade and tourism, and building a signature bridge -- and no reason to fail, other than a lack of vision and will," Schumer said.

As for the anti-terrorism grant program, Erie and Niagara counties appeared unlikely last summer to get any money after the federal government lowered the region's perceived security threat from 25th to last among 46 urban areas. That change accounted for a drop in homeland security funds to $3 million from $10 million.

But the region's congressional delegation successfully lobbied for changing the grant formula to take into account the region's proximity to the border.

Tests are expected next fall in Western New York on the state's $2 billion effort to improve emergency communications. The local cost could reach $25 million, and the county has some money set aside for the project, Comerford said.

"If I had $25 million, I would get it done in a year," he said.

More likely, the county will seek federal grants over the next couple of years to pay for it.

Funds also will be sought for other programs for the two counties.

"This will be a regional effort, by all means," said Niagara County Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster. "We're really speaking in one voice."

Earlier this month, Chertoff said the anti-terrorism grants totaling $746 million are meant for areas deemed most vulnerable to terrorist attack.


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