It's Not About the Grant Money

The Los Angeles Times makes a point - a very fine point - in a Sunday editorial that tries to get Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa off the hook for the city's inability to compete for all the federal funding for which the city was eligible.

But first, the Times lingered over City Hall's sorry record in generating revenue:

Let's be clear: The mayor's administration has been terrible at collecting money. Audits by Controller Wendy Greuel have spotlighted one lost opportunity after another to recoup funds the city is owed or otherwise may have available to it, most from right here in town. For example, almost $15 million was lost because the Department of Transportation didn't collect on overdue parking tickets, despite a huge investment in technology to identify ticket scofflaws. Nearly $15 million more was lost because the Bureau of Street Services was too slow at issuing permits for bus benches, newsstands and other so-called street furniture; the money was to come from advertising. Millions more were lost when the Department of Recreation and Parks failed to update its concession agreements, and from similar inertia across departments under the mayor's purview.
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But, the Times continued, don't blame the Mayor for the millions in federal stimulus money left on the table. That was the contention in news stories about Controller Wendy Greuel's recent audit of the city's granstmanship performance. After all, according to the Times' editorial, Los Angeles did about as well as other cities in securing federal funding.

"Yes, City Hall got only $261 million of $1.3 billion in recovery act funds available nationwide," the Times said, "but that's why they're called competitive grants. This city's take was about on par with other cities'."

Greuel's audit also made a case for establishing a clearinghouse for grants that would troll the Federal Register for application requests and then work with city departments to craft applications that will successfully compete.

Peter Sanders, a spokesman for Mayor Villaraigosa, tartly replied that the city already has an office to manage grants . . . set up by the Mayor two months ago . "It remains unclear whether the Controller's office was even aware that our Office of Grants exists," Sanders said. "Its creation was common knowledge here at City Hall." (The subtext, of course, is Greuel's mayoral campaign to replace the termed-out Villaraigosa.)

Unfortunately, the Times thinks that the organizational problem Greuel diagnosed in her audit has been solved by setting up a grants office under the Mayor's direction. I don't think so. As I noted last week:

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.

Displacing grant management to the Mayor's office does little to reform City Hall's fundamental disconnections. It may even worsen them by giving the application development process an unnecessary political spin.

Unlike the cynical old saying, it's not really about the money. In redesigning how Los Angeles works, it's really about getting a coherent, functional, and responsive City Hall.

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.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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