Ohioans, state agencies respond to latest terror alert

By JONATHAN DREW, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Terror alerts haven't compelled Cherry Dick to change her daily plans, although she believes they're helping to keep the country safe.

"I just won't let the terrorists frighten me," the 75-year-old said Wednesday as she reclined in a chair while sipping hot chocolate at a coffee house in the Columbus suburb of Worthington. "If it's going to happen it will happen. The Lord will take me whether it's in terrorism or crossing the street."

Ohioans are again contemplating their safety as the state has raised its terror alert to orange, or high, for the fourth time.

The heightened alert came Tuesday after the Homeland Security Department made the same move nationally.

Gov. Bob Taft has said there are no threats against Ohio. He's encouraging Ohioans to be observant and tell police about anything out of the ordinary.

Cleveland taxicab driver Kenneth W. Powe, 49, said he understood the heightened security level given recent terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, but sometimes feels his job puts him more at risk.

Behind the wheel for 60 hours a week, Powe said he has a chance to keep an eye out for anything unusual, and takes advantage of it.

"I try to pay attention to anybody and everybody," he said Wednesday while waiting for a fare.

The state plans to tighten security while lawmakers look for money to pay for it.

The orange alert comes as the Legislature debates a proposed $48.5 billion budget proposal for the two years beginning July 1, and a one-penny sales tax increase to help balance the upcoming budget.

Lawmakers have had to close more than $4 billion in deficits in the current two-year budget.

Ken Morckel, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said the heightened threat level should cost the state between $35,000 and $36,000 a day, based on the last time the threat level was raised on March 17.

Overtime pay for State Highway Patrol troopers accounts for much of that increase, he said.

"Tight budget times are certainly a consideration," Morckel said. "But that doesn't mean we've cut back on our response. Is it a concern? Yeah. Any time you're spending state money it's a concern."

House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, said the heightened security is worth the extra money.

"If there's a cost associated with it, it's a cost that's certainly well spent," he said.

The Homeland Security Department announced last week that Cincinnati will receive $7.9 million and Cleveland will get $5.86 million from a pool of funds meant for cities at higher risk of terrorist attacks.

Because of the alert, state troopers have been reassigned to patrol the interstates around Ohio's largest cities 24 hours a day, and the state's 19 truck inspection sites also are open around the clock, patrol spokesman Lt. Rick Fambro said Wednesday.

Deliveries and visitors to state government buildings, such as the Statehouse and governor's mansion, also will face greater scrutiny from troopers who provide security, Fambro said.

Agencies such as the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency check their lines of communication and review stockpiles of hazardous chemicals, Morckel said. The state's emergency operations center in Columbus also is staffed.

The state's two nuclear power plants along Lake Erie will increase security patrols and get additional help from local law enforcement, said Todd Schneider, a spokesman for Akron-based FirstEnergy, which owns the plants.

The plants also are looking more closely at vehicles entering the sites. No nonessential personnel are allowed in, Schneider said.

The Columbus Fire Department, whose city-derived budget comes from local income tax, has increased staffing levels in some areas, said Battalion Chief Mike Fultz. He wouldn't provide further details.

The increased demand on personnel will result in 12-hour overtime shifts for some firefighters, he said. Firefighters normally work 24 hours on duty with 48 hours off duty.

If the department doesn't receive federal reimbursement, it could have to cut back on buying items such as pencils, pads, toilet paper or axes, Fultz said. That would depend on how long the state remains under the orange alert.

"Reducing service would be the last resort," Fultz said. "You can only tighten the belt so far. But we're not near that point yet."

In Cleveland, there were no obvious signs of increased security at two landmark locations, the 45-story BP office tower and the Tower City office and shopping complex downtown.

Landlords of both buildings, which have 24-hour manned security, did not immediately return calls requesting comment on security.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)