Money, prestige follow new role for Coast Guard
By BILL ADAIR and LEANORA MINAI
The Coast Guard's motto is semper paratus -- always ready.
But for years, critics have said the agency couldn't live up to the motto because of its old ships and outdated technology.
Take the Coast Guard base in St. Petersburg, for example. Two 210-foot cutters based in St. Petersburg are each more than 30 years old. Many buildings at the base were constructed in 1934.
"We have many assets that have been in the inventory for a long time," said Capt. Fred M. Rosa Jr., commander of Group St. Petersburg.
But with the Coast Guard likely to move to the new Homeland Security Department, the agency is likely to get the attention -- and the money -- it has long sought.
"These are the best of times to be in the Coast Guard," said Vice Admiral James D. Hull, who was at St. Petersburg's Coast Guard station Friday for a ceremony honoring a new commander of the cutter Resolute.
In an interview with the Times, Hull said there is already some money earmarked for new equipment. About $17-billion is budgeted to replace, among other things, 30-year-old ships.
Between now and 2006, $500-million will be spent to upgrade the National Distress and Response System -- a "mariner's 911" communication and location rescue network that is supposed to blanket coastal waters.
Also, over the next four years, an additional 6,000 people will be hired.
What does that mean for the Coast Guard group in St. Petersburg, which covers 370 miles of the Gulf Coast?
It means the two cutters will be replaced and an undetermined number of guardsmen will be added.
Moving to the new department could increase the dollars even more.
Michael Sciulla, vice president for governmental affairs for the Boat Owners Association of the United States, said, "The Coast Guard will be in a position to get funded like it's never been funded before. It's going to give them more money -- lots more money."
However, he is concerned that boating safety could be a lower priority because "being part of an organization whose main focus is fighting terrorists is going to be incompatible with the role ensuring the safety of tens of millions of boaters."
Sciulla's group says safety responsibilities should remain within the Transportation Department.
Hull said he did not know how the new anti-terror demands will change traditional Coast Guard functions like fishing patrols or boat safety. He said he is committed to maintaining all services.
"We don't know truthfully what maritime security means today," Hull said.
President Bush proposed the new Homeland Security Department to unite more than 100 federal agencies that have a role in homeland security. His proposal has strong support in Congress, but some lawmakers have opposed transferring individual agencies.
Lawmakers from agricultural districts have opposed moving the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service because the new department might put less emphasis on its agricultural duties. Other lawmakers have objected to transferring the Federal Emergency Management Agency because it might reduce the emphasis on flood insurance and response to natural disasters.
There have been similar concerns about the Coast Guard, but it appears that Congress will move it to the new department.
The Coast Guard, with 35,000 employees and a $5-billion budget, was formed in 1790 for the purpose of homeland defense.
Since then, it has assumed broader responsibilities for search and rescue, promoting boating safety, protecting the environment and law enforcement.
Tom Ridge, the Bush administration's director for homeland security, has said the reorganization won't diminish those other services, even though they're unrelated to the security mission.
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