APPLETON, Wis. — The events of Sept. 11 have made Americans open to bigger government. President Bush, elected on a platform of reducing government, has declared that "government faces a new era" in which it "must do more."
But Sept. 11 ultimately could leave most communities with less.
In and around this city of 70,000, the signs are small but as sure as a cold wind off Lake Winnebago. One county is closing nutrition sites for the elderly and group homes for the disabled. Another county has cut money for school trips and wetland tours. There will be longer waits for court dates and driver's licenses. And that's before the state, which sends most of its money to local governments and schools, figures out how to close a $1.3-billion budget hole.
The cuts illustrate an unintended consequence of the nation's war on terrorism: the shrinking of services at the state and local levels. Sept. 11 has not sparked an expansion of government, but rather a transfer of resources to defense. That has created pressure for cuts in areas not related to protection--a push heightened by the recession, which itself was deepened by the terrorist attacks.
This pressure falls most heavily not on Washington, D.C., but on America's 19,372 cities and 3,043 counties--even a place like Appleton, where residents pride themselves on living in a self-sufficient city, sheltered from change. People here still revere long-dead native sons (most notably Harry Houdini and Joseph R. McCarthy), root for the same football team that entertained their great grandparents (the Green Bay Packers) and work in paper mills, dairy farms and insurance companies that have survived for generations.
A thousand miles from ground zero, Sept. 11 has shaken municipal government in ways small but fundamental. War, after all, has long been the job of the federal government. But local governments haven't had this much responsibility for the common defense since Indians roamed the frontier.
Since Sept. 11, cities and counties have rapidly and somewhat awkwardly adapted. Police departments are behaving like intelligence agencies, interviewing foreigners and surveying the infrastructure for weaknesses that might be exploited by the enemy. Local governments are appointing liaisons to neighboring agencies--like diplomats who negotiate regional treaties in the event of an attack. Hazardous material teams have become front-line soldiers, responding to the smallest hints of bioterrorism.
The new security and public health costs--defense budgets in practice if not in name--are expected to total as much as $4 billion for state governments and $3 billion for localities by the end of this year. These obligations have left city councils and county supervisors facing a dilemma once reserved for those in Congress: If we spend more money on defense, where do we cut?
"If you're a city or a town, you can't wait for the federal government, you can't wait for Tom Ridge," says University of Wisconsin professor Donald F. Kettl, referring to Bush's recently appointed director of homeland security. "If you're the mayor of Appleton, you're the real Tom Ridge anyway."
'What Better Place to Create Fear?'
On the morning of Sept. 11, the mayor of Appleton, Tim Hanna, made lunches for his two school-age children and went to the meeting of a local arts board.
Fifteen minutes in, the phone rang with the bad news.
For the first time in his life, the mayor, a 44-year-old Appleton native, entertained the thought that his city could soon be under attack.
"What better place to create fear than the safest city in the country?" he recalls thinking.
Appleton averages one homicide every other year. Safety and peace breed growth, and this city has had a century and a half of it, interrupted only by war.
In Appleton, as elsewhere, the peril of attack historically focused government resources on protection at the expense of development. It took years of war and failed treaties with Wisconsin's tribes before a village could begin to grow on the banks of the Fox River in the early 1850s.
During the Civil War, tighter government control of the river stymied commerce; the area's central institution, Lawrence College, nearly went out of business.
During World War II, local air raid systems and the emergency food and housing corps gobbled up local government dollars. Schools, bridges and a hospital were put on hold until money flowed again in the postwar years.
As Hanna drove his Buick LeSabre back to City Hall on Sept. 11, homeland defense became the focus of area government for the first time in more than 50 years.
City and county officials stepped up security at potential targets. They temporarily shut parking around City Hall to deter car bombers. Courthouses in Calumet and Winnebago counties began using metal detectors for the first time. The new water treatment plant got round-the-clock police protection.
And Appleton police Lt. Rudy Nyman found himself with a brand new assignment.