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When campaigns come calling, locals pay dearly

When the presidential campaign comes to town, security arrangements disrupt residents’ lives and strain local budgets, because no law requires the candidates to reimburse cities and counties.
Image: Police guard the street where Barack Obama lives
Police barricade Sen. Barack Obama’s street in Chicago. City officials won’t say how much the round-the-clock protection is costing local taxpayers.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: and NBC News

Democratic presidential candidate may get the votes of his neighbors in the Hyde Park section of Chicago, but at the moment they’re mighty unhappy with their senator. And they’re going to stay that way at least until Election Day.

Tourists jostle with security agents in the 5000 block of South Greenwood Avenue, where Obama’s home has been fortified on both sides with concrete barriers. Only residents — who have to show ID to get to their homes — are allowed to drive along the street, but there’s not much point: Practically every tree and light pole has a “No Parking” sign on it.

“It’s probably 20 or 30 cars that park between these two areas that now have to find someplace else to park in an already parking-strained neighborhood,” grumbled Rod Sawyer, who lives on the street.

And forget about catching the bus. Until recently, the Chicago Transit Authority had a stop on Obama’s corner, but no more. CTA drivers zip right past now.

“All of that has stopped,” Sawyer said.

Who foots the bill?Obama’s neighbors are learning firsthand the hassles that come with close encounters with presidential campaigns. And they are not alone. Across the country, when the candidates come to town, local taxpayers often pay dearly for the privilege of a quick glimpse or a handshake, not only in irritation but in cash.

Chicago officials won’t reveal how much it’s costing taxpayers to keep gawkers and cars away from Obama’s home. Some of that cost is borne by the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, but other expenses fall on police, public works and transit agencies.

If other cities are any indication, it’s quite a chunk of money. When Obama visited Middletown, N.J., last month for a private fundraising dinner at the home of rock star Jon Bon Jovi, police estimated their overtime costs at $14,000.

And if you’re in a so-called battleground state, where the candidates drop by again and again, the costs skyrocket. In 2004, when President Bush, Sen. John Kerry, their running mates and their relatives visited Ohio frequently, Columbus and Franklin counties alone tallied more than $600,000 in police overtime, The Columbus Dispatch calculated.

The same story is playing out this year in Kansas City, Mo., where officials were already wrestling with a budget shortfall reaching into tens of millions of dollars. Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. of Arizona, have campaigned there repeatedly because Missouri is seen as a swing state.

Obama made his fifth stop Saturday in Kansas City; McCain has made at least four. Every visit adds up to expenses that aren’t in the city’s budget.

At the request of the Secret Service, Kansas City police declined to tell how much the visits have cost. But City Manager Wayne Cauthen told NBC affiliate KSHB of Kansas City that by the time Election Day rolls around, administrators will have scrounged for hundreds of thousands of dollars for police overtime, airport security and disrupted transportation, severely aggravating a budget crisis that has already strained the city to near the breaking point.

“It’s something we hadn’t planned on,” Cauthen said. “We don’t know when a candidate is coming to our city and how long they’re going to stay and what they’re going to do.”

Reimbursement not requiredSome cities have managed to work out reimbursement arrangements with the candidates’ parties. But such arrangements are ad hoc, and they are not the norm, because there are no laws or regulations saying the parties — or the federal government, when the FBI and the Secret Service are involved — have any obligation to pony up.

Money is tight in Johnstown, Pa., where Treasurer Michael Gifford told the Common Council this month that preliminary budget numbers showed that the city might have to raise property tax rates by 3 percent to 5 percent next year.

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential running mate, stopped in town this month, City Manager Curt Davis turned down the Secret Service’s request for a bomb-sniffing dog, because there was no money in the budget for the handler’s overtime.

The city also sent the local Republican Party a bill for police overtime. The amount — just $294 — wasn’t the point, since only a couple of extra officers were needed. It was the principle: The city is tired of being short-changed and wants political campaigns to pay their fair share, officials said, noting that neither Obama nor his primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., had reimbursed agencies for their visits in the spring.

Jerry Matysik, police chief in Eau Claire, Wis., which rang up $28,000 in unbudgeted expenses four years ago after visits from the Bush and Kerry campaigns, acknowledged that “it’s nice to have candidates visit — I think some people find that exciting and interesting.”

But “it’s not without cost,” said Matysik.

“Various communities, sheriff’s departments, police departments in the past have tried to collect money that is spent on these,” he said. “It’s been turned down consistently.”

The Wisconsin State Patrol, which is also involved in security efforts, doesn’t even bother asking.

“That’s the price of doing business,” Sgt. Jerry Voight said. “We try to limit the amount that we’re going to spend on it — keep people on straight time, limit the amount of overtime.”

‘Sense of community obligation’Likewise, Jeff Rea, mayor of Mishawaka, Ind., never sought reimbursement for $2,000 in unbudgeted costs his city incurred when the Clinton campaign came to town last spring.

“We ... feel a certain sense of community obligation to work with the FBI and Secret Service when they call for help,” Rea said.

But some residents say they shouldn't have to bear the burden.

“The campaign should pay,” said Dan Aryea of Mishawaka. “That’s what they raise money for, for things like that.”

Debbie Greenslees, another resident, agreed, saying, “Our county and city government are already taxed.”

Spokesmen for the Obama and McCain campaigns said they could not comment on security matters. But Obama acknowledged the issue last month when he explained why he didn’t visit Mississippi as Hurricane Ike approached the Gulf Coast.

“The thing that I always am concerned about in the middle of a storm is whether we’re drawing resources away from folks on the ground,” Obama said. “Because [of] the Secret Service and various security requirements, sometimes it pulls police, fire and other departments away from concentrating on the job.”

McCain took a different tack in June, turning down a request from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver to cancel a campaign visit while resources were diverted to recovering from floods that swamped the state.

David Roederer, McCain’s state campaign chairman, said aides made sure McCain’s trip wouldn’t hamper the recovery operation. But Obama canceled his June visit at the request of state officials.