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Homeland security remains top priority even in budget fight

State government faces a $15 billion budget deficit, layoffs and across-the-board cuts in services, but at least one agency appears to be doing just fine, thank you — the state Office of Homeland Security.

In part, that’s because OHS, like some other state agencies, relies largely on federal money, not state money. Three part-time staffers were laid off because of the governor’s cuts, but in the world of government budgeting, federal money is more reliable than state money.  It’s also because OHS’ role in assuring a secure state is viewed as necessary.

“It has impacts on this office in terms of salaries—some of us might not get paid because of the budget. It will affect people, but in terms of what we do, the budget source is there,” said OHS spokesman Jay Alan.

While proposed cuts target everything from Medi-Cal to higher education to the prison system, these reductions generally spare OHS’ core function.

OHS noted earlier that it will be receiving $260 million in total funding from various competitive grant programs, and increase of $18 million more than last year” from its federal parent, the U.S Department of Homeland Security.

That means a total of $328 million — estimated to be 80 percent of the office’s overall federal funding — will be dispersed by OHS to a myriad of local agencies. The remaining $13 million will help pay for a variety of functions, including OHS’ operations, as well as other state agencies’ personal protective and testing equipment.

“Once Proposition 1B passed about two years ago, part of those funds we managed were for port and maritime security, which was about $100 million last year and might be this too,” says Gary S. Winuk, OHS’ chief deputy director. “We used to get $100,000 in antiterrorism funding, and that’s our only source of non-federal, non-bond money.”

One event in which OHS regularly participates is called Golden Guardian, an annual statewide emergency exercise designed to test the capabilities of the state’s emergency and law enforcement in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Over the years, Alan says, Golden Guardian has steadily grown, with more counties and agencies getting involved. This year’s scenario is a 7.8 earthquake in Southern California’s San Andreas Fault. The first Golden Guardian exercise was held in 2004, and it has grown since then in size and expense.

“Nevertheless, we still try to watch what we spend on leaves and overnight stays,” says Alan.
Expansion of their local space is also in the works.

Of the 160 staffers working for Homeland Security— either from civil service, National Guard, contract staff, and appointees—110 are able to reside in one building near the Capitol at 12th and K streets. The facilities there include a newly installed gym, part of a negotiated tenant improvement to accommodate 50 percent of OHS staff. Although seemingly a luxury in a tight budget year, the gym is necessary because some OHS personnel are required by their jobs to maintain a high physical-fitness standard, OHS says.
“All our money goes directly to supporting first responders to provide equipment or training exercise they need,” says Winuk. “I know the whole gym thing came up, but we didn’t use a single dollar of our funds for that.”

He also said that more space in the building – which is owned by the University of California — is needed for 25 OHS staffers who currently have temporary space elsewhere.

“We’re working on one more build-out of office space. There will be 135 when we get final,” says Alan.

Aside from space and budgeting, OHS also may be affected by legislation pending in the Capitol – though it is unlikely to change the agency’s role in distributing federal funding.

The bill, AB 38, approved Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, that would merge OHS with the Office of Emergency Services, the statewide office that responds to fires, quakes, floods and other disasters.  

The author of the bill is Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, who chairs the Joint Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security, a key legislative committee. Nava’s bill would create a new cabinet-level department with legislative oversight, in which OHS and OES would function under as the California Emergency Management Agency, or CALEMA.

While pleased that the OHS “has performed well, with their responsibilities,” Nava maintains that the bill grew out of concerns for efficient operations.

“We convened over a dozen hearings to talk about those issues on services and response, and what was repeatedly said by first responder and professionals in disaster management, was how helpful it would be if OES and OHS were merged into one,” he says.
Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Riverside, also voted in favor of the bill.

He maintains that OHS has a “very important role in government, and has gotten more important since 9/11. Creation of the direction of OES and OHS, on the Governor’s cabinet, would be important. They’d still be autonomous roles, but with direct access.”

Benoit, a veteran law enforcement officer of 31 years, has familiar experience with OHS directors and their mission. “They do a good job in coordinating, getting resources out, and distributing equipment,” he says. “I don’t think we’re spending too much to protect ourselves.”

Alan similarly acknowledges the necessity of public safety, saying the “robustness of our system requires robust plans to prevent, deter, and respond to any disaster.” Yet, he maintains that the OHS have remained fiscally responsible during a time of deficit.
“Although we are not general fund, we are cognizant and concerned about the state budget. We take our mission seriously, and that includes tax payer dollars.”

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