State’s homeland security a mess

It is hardly reassuring to discover that the nonpartisan state auditor has blasted California’s stewardship of $1.3 billion in federal homeland security funds as largely a mess.

In fact, state government has been so lackadaisical about disbursing federal funds to local emergency responders that California is in danger of losing $239 million at the end of the year. In some years, local emergency funds were not sent out until 11 months had passed, forcing numerous California cities into multimillion-dollar cash crunches.

Not only that, California agencies are way behind schedule in reviewing county and state responder emergency preparedness plans and conducting on-site inspections. Even worse,the auditor called California’s emergency preparedness drills inadequate to determine how well the state could respond to any large-scale disaster.

California’s emergency services and homeland security administrators have managed to distribute only 42 percent of the $954 million allocated to the state since 2001. Health services has done somewhat better, spending 78 percent of its bioterrorism funds.

Yet, when it came to defending themselves against State Auditor Elaine Howle’s sweeping charges, the several California agencies administering portions of the homeland security funds responded fast as lightning. The director of the state’s Homeland Security Office, Matthew Bettenhausen, blamed much of the delay on the federal government’s ever-changing maze of requirements for disbursing the money.

It is hardly surprising to find various levels of government officialdom juggling blame like hot potatoes. They also point out that most other states are apparently as bad or worse in their handling of homeland security appropriations — which is not terribly comforting.

The state auditor makes several recommendations for improving California’s homeland security oversight: There should be a kind of “emergency czar,” a single entity with direct responsibility over every aspect of emergency preparedness, including terrorist attacks. And the entire emergency preparedness structure should be clearly defined in law, to eliminate the current labyrinthine confusion.

Generally The Examiner is less than enthusiastic about expansion of government regulations or the establishment of new agency layers. But there seems little doubt the state auditor makes a strong case that the present homeland security apparatus is ineffective at protecting the public.

Californians have a right to demand that the entire sharing of responsibilities among homeland security, emergency preparedness and health services must be clarified and strengthened as rapidly as possible.

Gov. Schwarzenegger was on the right track to sign the bill removing the state Public Health Department from the larger bureaucracy administering Medi-Cal payments for the poor. Now a separate Public Health Department should have fewer barriers to its mission of helping local government respond to medical disasters and epidemics.

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