S.F. emergency director challenges audit but supports most of its advice
Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
All Rights Reserved
By CECILIA M. VEGA
The San Francisco Chronicle (California)
San Francisco is prepared to handle an earthquake, terrorist attack or other disaster, and an audit released Monday criticizing the agency charged with planning for such catastrophes makes assertions that are "absolutely incorrect," the department's director said.
Office of Emergency Services Director Annemarie Conroy called a news conference "to set the record straight" just hours after the 172-page report by Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst Harvey Rose was released.
The audit calls into question the department's readiness for a disaster, its spending habits and Conroy's experience in emergency preparedness, and it says the Office of Emergency Services is top-heavy with management.
Conroy, whom San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed to the job in 2004, fired back by saying the audit gives a false impression that the city is unprepared.
"There are a number of things in the budget analyst's report that are being used to malign the office that are inaccurate," she said.
Among the inaccuracies, she said, is a miscalculation by auditors that resulted in the assertion that her office spends too much money on personnel and not enough preparing for a catastrophe.
She also challenged the audit's finding that her office's plans for dealing with a terrorist attack or earthquake were inadequate.
Yet even as she ran off a list of complaints, Conroy said she had agreed to implement a majority of the budget analyst's 72 recommendations.
Rose stood by his findings and asked why Conroy and her aides had never raised the concerns during numerous discussions with auditors before the report was released. If Conroy can refute any of the points in his audit, he said, "then I'll eat those specific facts printed in the report with ketchup."
Others in City Hall said Conroy's support of nearly all the recommendations but opposition to many of the audit's findings sent a mixed message.
"There appears to be an overabundance of political triage," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who sits on the city's Disaster Council. "And it seems to be missing the point of the audit, which is, is the OES doing the job it's assigned to do?"
Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who called for the audit, said, "San Franciscans would be best served if (agency officials) stopped being defensive and went about their job of embracing the recommendations and acknowledging the inadequacies of our emergency services department."
The department manages more than $82 million in federal and state Homeland Security grants, but to date has spent only about $22.5 million and risks losing much of the grant money when it expires at the end of the year, Rose's report said.
The audit said Conroy's office had spent only 1 percent of that $22.5 million on disaster preparedness training. More than half of the city's grant money has gone to cover personnel costs such as salaries, overtime and health insurance, the report said.
Conroy called that assertion "a big mistake." She said auditors had not taken into consideration overtime and other costs associated with training.
By her reckoning, roughly 25 percent of the grant money that the office has spent so far has gone for disaster training.
Rose argued vehemently with Conroy's calculation and said the city books show otherwise.
"It is a fact that 51 percent of current expenditures have gone to personnel," he said. "While it is possible that some of the expenses have gone to cover overtime and backfill related to trainings and exercises, the amount of the expenditures in the official controller's records accounts for only 1 percent of those expenditures."
The audit praises Conroy and her staff for increasing the number of emergency plans that detail what to do in various disasters, such as a tsunami or terrorist attack, and for updating the citywide emergency plan for the first time in a decade.
But it also says some of the plans are "inconsistent and do not provide adequate San Francisco-specific information." A plan on terrorism, for example, does not list possible targets, and a plan dealing with earthquakes is incomplete, auditors said.
Conroy responded that "any suggestion that anyone is making that our plans in San Francisco are not fully capable of handling a major event is inaccurate."
Conroy said that the earthquake plan is in the works and that another document separate from the terrorism plan lists possible targets.
Auditors questioned whether that was a wise approach.
"If I were a first responder walking into a room in an emergency, I'm going to ... pull out the terrorism plan. I'm not going to know there's another list," said Budget Analyst Bree Mawhorter, who worked on the audit.
Conroy also said there was no reason for the audit to blame her department for the unspent millions in grant money.
"San Francisco is no different than the county and city of Los Angeles and other major urban areas in the country" in having lots of unspent grants, Conroy said.
Newsom said Monday there was nothing in the audit that lessened his support of Conroy.