CALIFORNIA; Slow spending imperils security funds

California has been so slow in spending the $1.3 billion in homeland security and bioterrorism funds it has been awarded over the past five years, the federal government could take back $239 million in unspent funds, a state audit released Tuesday found.

Statewide emergency preparedness drills aren't rigorous enough, and California is behind schedule in reviewing local emergency operations plans, including those of San Francisco, Los Angeles and five other Bay Area counties.

"The state's organizational structure for ensuring emergency preparedness is not streamlined or well defined," wrote State Auditor Elaine Howle in the 59-page analysis of California's readiness for a disaster or terrorist incident.

Most of the responsibility for coping with an emergency at the state level rests with three entities: the Office of Homeland Security, the governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Department of Health and Human Services.

In their response to the audit, the Homeland Security and Emergency Services agencies said they are working with lawmakers to define their responsibilities.

Since 2001, California has received $954 million in homeland security funds and $386 million in bioterrorism grants. Much of that money is funneled to city and county firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders.

While health services has spent 78 percent of its bioterrorism funds, the audit found that Emergency Services and Homeland Security had spent only 42 percent of the $954 million they administer.

Without a federal extension, some grants expire Dec. 31, putting $239 million in jeopardy of being lost to the state, the audit said.

Although created in 2003, the Office of Homeland Security had less than a half dozen employees until 2005 and has only been involved in awarding grants since its staffing was beefed up last year to 53 people. "After we took over the grant process last year, we've made great strides in ensuring the funds are spent as quickly as possible but also on critical homeland security priorities," said Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for the office.

The audit criticized a statewide readiness exercise in 2005 for only including five Bay Area counties -- San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara -- and three Sacramento area counties.

Emergency Services was chided for not following its own policies that require counties to update their emergency plans every three years. Since 2002, Emergency Services has either not received or reviewed the plans of 35 of California's 58 counties which contain two-thirds of California's population.

In response to the audit, Emergency Services officials said the policy for reviewing plans every three years is more of a target than a mandate.

Emergency Services is also supposed to review and approve emergency plans for 19 state entities that would likely respond to an emergency. Howle said the office could not show whether it had even received such a plan from the California Highway Patrol or the state Military Department.

"CHP officers and the National Guard would seem to me to be two of your key responders," Howle said.

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