Emergency funds for regional cities hang in balance

The race to spend millions in federal Homeland Security dollars is coming down to the final months, with emergency officials from San Francisco and San Mateo working to keep as much of each county’s disaster dollars from being reallocated to the state.

In the five years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, San Francisco has received more than $80 million of Homeland Security grants under the Urban Area Security Initiative program, not including money received for the region in 2006; San Mateo has received approximately $15.5 million. The money is to bolster a municipality’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other catastrophic crisis.

Two spending deadlines are looming for the UASI funding: a Dec. 31 deadline for money allocated in 2003 and 2004, and a March 31, 2007, deadline for funds granted for 2005.

San Francisco has close to $2 million left to spend before the end of the year, and another $10.6 million to use before the spring deadline, according to data from The City’s Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. San Mateo County officials told The Examiner that they were not able to release a dollar amount of how much remained of the $6.2 million the region must spend in the next several months, but said the county was on target to meet the deadlines.

Laura Phillips, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Communications, said she was confident that The City would reach both spending deadlines, adding that all of the money was already earmarked for specific purposes, including a $2 million modernization of San Francisco’s emergency operations center and another $1.6 million for an interoperable microwave communications system.

“I’m not worried about it at all,” Phillips said.

San Mateo officials did say they were scrambling to spend a last-minute gift of $178,000 that came to San Mateo from Marin County, via San Francisco officials.

“We were notified [by San Francisco] on Nov. 27 that they needed to spend this money because they didn’t want to send it back,” said Lt. John Quinlan, San Mateo’s director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. “How could we not take the money for our citizens? It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

The $178,000 was originally granted to San Francisco as part of its 2003 regional terrorism funds, and the county allocated the money to its federally designated regional partner, Marin County, which planned to use the funding for urban search and rescue exercises, according to Chris Godley, Marin’s emergency services manager. Delays in approvals for the training earlier on and busy schedules for emergency personnel due to fire season later in the year prevented the funds from being used, Godley said.

The last-minute infusion of funds, while welcomed, strained county resources, according to Quinlan, but the county found ways to spend the money, putting in one order for $95,000 in Community Emergency Response Team training kits — helmets, gloves, flashlights, pry bars and goggles — and another $45,000 order for confined space rescue equipment.

If money is already in the process of being spent — for example, a piece of equipment is on order — grant extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis, according to state and federal officials.

The state is also waiting in the wings with backup plans for any money that local jurisdictions are unable to spend, said Chris Bertelli, deputy director of California’s Homeland Security office.

“We’re not in danger of giving the money back to [Washington,] D.C.,” he said.

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