San Francisco still learning Sept. 11’s difficult lessons

San Francisco’s emergency services department is in a race with time to spend tens of millions of Homeland Security dollars before the end of December, after which the money could be redirected to anti-terrorism needs in some other part of the state or country.

In the five years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, San Francisco has received more than $83 million in Homeland Security grant funds to bolster The City’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other catastrophic crisis, according to San Francisco’s Office of Emergency Services.

In March, a letter went out from the director of the Office of Emergency Services to the heads of several city departments, reminding them that HomelandSecurity Grants are scheduled to expire by the end of 2006.

Laura Phillips, executive director of The City’s Emergency Communications Department, which oversees the Office of Emergency Services, told The Examiner, “Our goal is to spend 100 percent and not send any funds back.”

To date, 29 percent of San Francisco’s allocated Homeland Security funds, more than $24 million, has not been spent. Another $20.5 million has been earmarked for a specific purpose or is in the process of being spent, according to the Office of Emergency Services, a spending limbo known as “encumbered.”

“Encumbered” is not “expended,” so some of those dollars are also in danger of being lost, Peter Rumble of The City’s Budget Analyst Office said.

In May, Budget Analyst Harvey Rose released an unfavorable management audit of the Office of Emergency Services. The risk of losing unspent grant dollars was among the concerns expressed in the report, which noted that some funds were labeled as “encumbered” for significant periods of time and suggested that more effort needed to be made to reallocate funds to other emergency priorities in The City before the grants expire.

Earlier this year, 54 percent of The City’s Homeland Security funds — more than $44 million — had not been spent as of Feb. 1, according to the Budget Analyst’s Office. In the seven months since, more than $20 million has been either spent or encumbered.

“They use ‘encumbered’ very loosely, and some funds encumbered were never expended,” said Rumble.

Spending grant money can be a long process that involves planning, approvals and accounting procedures, said Phillips.

One of the difficulties with using Homeland Security grant money is that the recipient doesn’t initially get any funds. Grant awardees must use their own resources to pay for the personnel, equipment, training or other emergency preparedness services needed,and then apply for reimbursement.

If the entire amount allocated isn’t spent, the state or federal government could choose to reclaim the funds, according to officials.

Although San Francisco receives numerous Homeland Security grants earmarked for specific purposes, the largest source of discretionary funding comes from the Urban Area Security Initiative, or UASI, grant program.

San Francisco has received $71,276,486 in UASI funds from 2001 to 2005.

Mary Ellen Carroll, a senior planner for the Department of Public Health’s disaster preparedness office, said the office has spent most of the $7.5 million of UASI funds allocated to the department.

“We’ve got close to $2 million that has not been liquidated, but all of the money is spoken for,” Carroll said.

San Francisco is not alone in its struggle to turn grant funding into actual training, equipment and personnel. Many other cities nationwide have also fallen behind in spending the Homeland Security funds.

A June 2004 report by the

federal Department of Homeland Security revealed that the spending process has been hampered by the complexity of the grant system, a lack of national standards guiding the purchasing process and high demand for some emergency equipment supplies, among other obstacles.

Phillips said, however, that slow spending has been the attitude in the past, but The City is now taking an “aggressive approach” on grant spending.

San Francisco’s emergency officials have also been working to create a “contingent list” of emergency preparedness projects that could be funded, in the event any city department isn’t able to use all of its grant funding.

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

“What’s important to us, on our level, is that we meet federal deadlines for spending, so the funds stay in California and we don’t have to give any back to [Washington] D.C.,” he said.

homeland security funding

Less than half of San Francisco’s Homeland Security dollars for fiscal years 2001-2005 have been spent.

Amount Spent $38,359,987 46%

Encumbered 20,527,787 25%

Not Spent 24,443,557 29%

Total $83,331,331 100%

Source: Office of Emergency Services

homeland security funding

The majority of San Francisco’s Homeland Security Urban Area Security Initiative grant funds are allocated to public safety departments and San Francisco’s Office of Emergency Services.

Percentage

Department Allocation of total

Fire $12,290,864 20%

Office of Emergency Services** 11,504,688 19%

Police 10,141,261 17%

Region partners 9,063,102 15%

Public Health 7,563,062 12%

Telecomm. and Information Systems 3,466,847 6%

Sheriff 2,567,721 4%

Emergency Communications 1,799,397 3%

Port 1,100,000 2%

Public Works 780,675 1%

Municipal Railway 500,909 1%

Other 343,745 < 1%

Total UASI grant funding $61,212,271 100% (does not include other DHS grants)

* Fiscal year 2001-2005

** Includes grant allocations for other city agencies, including the Medical Examiner

and the San Francisco Unified School District, according to the OES

Source: San Francisco Budget Analysts Office; Office of Emergency Services

beslinger@examiner.com

Bay Area NewsLocal

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