City Hall Leaves Tens of Millions in Grant Funds Unsought

Controller Wendy Greuel (who wants to change her title to Mayor) has faulted city department heads - again - for their inability to watch the bottom line.

Then, it was $23 million (threatening to grow to $57 million) in bench advertising revenue that bungled oversight left uncollected. Now it's more than $125 million in federal grant funding the city might have received, except no one applied for it or, when someone did, the application was badly flawed.

Much finger pointing has ensued. The complexities of federal grants and the loss of capacity that followed the departure of so many veteran bureaucrats since 2008 are blamed, as is the principle of "low hanging fruit." (Departments only applied for federal grants with projects they "knew" were likely to be funded.)

As a result, the city didn't seek all the funding it could have or submitted applications that were later rejected. No one at city hall can explain exactly why.

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The reason why the city didn't make a robust effort to compete for stimulus funding is the chaos inherent in the way Los Angeles governs itself. Key operating departments - police, fire, water and power - are virtual islands. Other departments are only lightly connected to each other and the City Administrative Office. And the whole apparatus is narrowly focused on meeting the day-to-day demands of individual city council members.

Greuel found that the city lacks a master plan for managing grants, has no clearinghouse for receiving requests, and fails to review applications before they're submitted. Some departments are good at grantsmanship, Greuel found; other departments leave the work to one or two staff members who are usually busy with other tasks.

The lack of coordination between departments and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana let grant applications linger and delayed getting federal funds allocated. In one case, it took more than two years to go from application to funding approval.

Los Angeles has a legacy of decentralized city government in reaction to an era when tightly controlled government was a cover for corrupt mayors. It's also a holdover from an era when the city didn't have to be nimble. That time, at least, is long gone.

If Los Angeles is to compete, it needs less chaos and more concentration on the bottom line.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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