Auditor blasts California's emergency management work

State homeland security official places some of the blame for failure to move quickly on the federal government.

The inability of local officials in California to efficiently manage federal grant funding has made the state less secure, according to an audit released Tuesday.

A report issued by state Auditor Elaine Howle found that the state has been slow in spending the $1.3 billion in federal grants it has received in the past five years and that as much as $239 million could be taken back if it is not put to use properly.

As of June, according to the audit, the state had spent only 42 percent of the $954 million in homeland security funds awarded between 2001 and 2005. The state also received $386 million in bioterrorism grants.

Some of the grants expire by the end of this year, the audit said.

"In one instance, nearly 10.5 months passed between the start of the award period and the awarding of the allocations by the governor's office of homeland security," the report said. "Further, reasons offered by local jurisdictions to explain the slow spending include the state's slow process for reimbursing local jurisdictions for their homeland security expenses and the short time allowed for developing budgets coupled with a time-consuming budget-revision process."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday announced plans to use a $9 million security grant to fund a public health laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The report also faulted the governor's Office of Emergency Services for falling behind schedule in its review of emergency plans for counties. In a letter to Schwarzenegger, Howle said the state's organizational structure is neither "streamlined" nor "well-defined." She said the relationships among various state agencies and committees also are ambiguous.

"If this situation continues, this labyrinthine structure could adversely affect emergency response and reduce the state's efficiency and effectiveness in investing the federal grant funds," she said.

The audit recommended that Schwarzenegger immediately test the responsiveness of state medical and health systems, identify steps to expedite the spending of security grants and streamline the state's preparedness structure. Some of that could be accomplished by defining in law the relationships among various state agencies and legislative branches, the report said.

It also urged the state's emergency services office to develop a system to track and review its response plans.

Matthew Bettenhausen, director of the state's homeland security office, said in a letter to Howle that he agreed with most of the audit's recommendations. But he said some blame for the failure to move quickly on emergency preparedness should be laid on the federal government.

He said the office is "extraordinarily frustrated with the ever-changing and myriad complex requirements imposed by the federal government across the multitude of separate homeland security grant programs."

Bettenhausen also asserted that California responders gained valuable experience during the past several years managing real-life emergencies, and that a program authorized by Schwarzenegger in 2004 to administer yearly, full-scale emergency exercises has helped boost security.