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DC mayor says July Fourth event and weekend protests bankrupted city's security fund

Fireworks ignite over the Lincoln Memorial at the Fourth of July Independence Day ceremony on Thursday, July 4, 2019, in Washington.

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PETER JAMISON AND JULIET EILPERIN | The Washington Post | Published: July 10, 2019

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's overhauled Fourth of July celebration cost the District of Columbia government about $1.7 million, an amount that combined with police expenses for demonstrations through the weekend has bankrupted a special fund used to protect the nation's capital from terrorist threats and provide security at events such as rallies and state funerals.

In a letter to the president Tuesday, District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, warned that the fund has been depleted and is estimated to be running a $6 million deficit when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The mayor also noted that the account was never reimbursed for $7.3 million in expenses from Trump's 2017 inauguration.

Bowser requested that the White House fully reimburse the fund. Without that money, city officials say, Washingtonians will be put in the unprecedented position of funding federal security needs with local tax dollars.

"We ask for your help with ensuring the residents of the District of Columbia are not asked to cover millions of dollars of federal expenses and are able to maintain our high standards of protection for federal events," Bowser wrote.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email that Trump administration officials "have received the letter and will respond in a timely manner."

He did not address the specific concerns Bowser raised.

"President Trump led our nation in a great Salute to America and recognized the brave sacrifice our service men and women have made throughout history," Deere said.

Chris Rodriguez, director of the District Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview that the estimated costs for the Fourth of July were six times as much as in years past and were likely to grow as the city continues to tally expenses.

The president's Independence Day celebration, called the "Salute to America," included a speech by Trump at the Lincoln Memorial, flyovers by military aircraft and a display of armored vehicles on the National Mall.

The Pentagon estimated this week that it spent $1.2 million for the event. In a letter Wednesday to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., Interior Secretary David Bernhardt confirmed that he had diverted $2.8 million from existing accounts to cover expenses associated with the "Salute to America." Bernhardt tapped $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees, intended to improve parks across the country, to cover the president's ceremony, along with $354,000 from a challenge-grant program to pay for fireworks-related expenses.

Interior is "clearly within the bounds of its authority in taking these actions," Bernhardt wrote, noting that the funds "have long been used by the National Park Service for celebratory events to enhance the visitor experience and to provide critical safety when there is a temporary influx of people."

The agency spent $500,000 on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commemoration and the related 2009 rededication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, Bernhardt noted.

All told, this year's Independence Day celebration on the National Mall cost taxpayers at least $9.15 million, according to government estimates. That included nearly $3.9 million for the "A Capitol Fourth" concert on the Capitol's West Lawn, an expenditure specifically designated by Congress.

The changes to the nation's premier Independence Day celebration stoked protests of the president at what is typically an apolitical event, with demonstrators flying a "Trump Baby" balloon near the World War II Memorial.

On Saturday, some of the president's supporters gathered at a rally organized by right-wing activists on Freedom Plaza. That event also drew a large counterprotest, and hundreds of police officers were deployed to prevent violence between the two sides.

The District's Emergency Planning and Security Fund is filled by federal money that reimburses the city for its unique public safety costs in its function as the nation's capital. Those include providing security at presidential inaugurations, visits by foreign dignitaries and huge rallies, which have become more frequent during the Trump administration.

Kim Dine, a former assistant District police chief and former chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, said no other police department in the country faces such constant pressure from large events and from political figures' security needs.

The challenges are compounded, he said, by the lack of a state or county police force to provide support - although District officers frequently partner with other agencies, such as the U.S. Park Police, Capitol Police and the Secret Service.

"Managing those types of events is almost like choreographing a ballet or directing a play. There's a lot of different moving parts," Dine said.

"I don't know that there's any department that could pick that [expense] up by themselves," he said. "Sharing the costs, at least in our view, is inherent in taking on all those duties."

Although it once carried large balances from year to year, the city's emergency security fund has dwindled since Trump's election.

The Trump administration and Congress still owe the District more than $7 million in expenses from Trump's $27.3 million inauguration, according to federal and city financial records.

By contrast, the Obama administration reimbursed $8.9 million in overruns for the 2013 inauguration, federal records show.

Trump administration officials say the District agreed to use unspent money in the emergency fund to pay for inaugural costs and have not asked for additional dollars, an assertion denied by Bowser's office.

Congress and the White House have been placing less money in the account each year than the city is spending - in fiscal 2017, for example, $14.9 million was added to the fund, while $24.4 million was spent.

Bowser said in her letter to Trump that the December funeral of former president George H.W. Bush also contributed to the fund's depletion.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, the District's nonvoting representative in Congress, said she will request an emergency infusion of $6 million to keep the security fund from going into the red.

Norton and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., last month wrote a letter to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees with a similar request.

"This has become dangerous," Norton said in an interview, noting that the city's police force is simultaneously contending with gun violence that is contributing to a rise in homicides compared with this time last year.

"It is about the worst time for a deficit to continue to mount for the District's role in what amounts to homeland security for the nation and the nation's capital," Norton said.

Rodriguez, the city's homeland security director, said the District won't cut back on its local law enforcement duties or federal security presence, even as the emergency fund runs out.

The difference, he said, will be who pays.

"We will continue to provide those services," he said. "It's just, in this case, D.C. taxpayers are the ones that are going to have to foot the bill for it."

The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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