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Quake Retrofit Funds About to Be Unearthed : Safety: Legislators may finally allocate $25 million to strengthen weak public buildings. Money from a $300-million bond act has been clogged in paperwork since 1990.

June 21, 1995|CYNTHIA H. CRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Five years after California voters approved a $300-million bond act to retrofit seismically weak public buildings, money is finally starting to break loose for the 25 state-owned structures ranked as risky in a big quake.

The seismic safety program, approved by voters as Proposition 122 in the aftermath of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, has been criticized for its sluggish progress.

State officials hope to end those complaints by allocating up to $25 million in the proposed state budget now being hammered out in a legislative conference committee.

But even with that, no money will have been spent on retrofitting--only on sketching out preliminary plans and drawings for work yet to be done.

As the public waits to see results from a program that it approved in 1990, at least $7 million has been spent on administration, consultants' studies and engineering reports, said Joel McRonald of the state architect's office.

Of that, $3 million went to the Seismic Safety Commission to compile state-of-the-art data on how to shore up older buildings.

Watching the funds get tangled in a thicket of reports and studies while buildings have stood untouched has been frustrating to some commissioners.

"To me, this is a problem," said Robert Wirtz, a Santa Monica Fire Department captain who serves on the commission. "I say, let's get on with upgrading the buildings. The money is just sitting there--and we are into analysis paralysis."

The structures, including an unsafe parking garage in Downtown Los Angeles, were identified last year by state engineers as potentially hazardous in a big temblor.

But neither the roster of vulnerable buildings nor the scare of the 1994 Northridge quake moved the Legislature to release the funds last year--either through the state budget or separate legislation authorizing the expenditure. An eleventh-hour bill to free up Proposition 122 funds failed, pushing the task forward into the current fiscal cycle.

To avoid a snag again this year, state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) resurrected last year's legislation to use as a backup mechanism if state budget talks run aground.

"We don't want any more delays," Polanco legislative aide Mark Carrel said. "The senator felt that if the budget gets stalled, this bill can go through and make sure we're protecting human lives."

Of criticism that state officials have been dragging their feet in getting the money out for its intended purpose, McRonald blamed mixed messages from the Legislature.

"On one hand, they want it spent faster. But on the other hand, they don't want it to be spent that fast," he said, referring to the failure of last year's bill. "They just want to have control, that's all."

The spending blueprint penciled out by legislators on the budget conference committee includes $2.9 million for plans, drawings and replacement of a garage at 145 S. Broadway in Los Angeles.

It does not, however, include money to upgrade the adjacent Junipero Serra State Office Building at 107 S. Broadway, which initially was identified as an earthquake risk in need of replacement.

Late last year, the Serra building was dropped from the list after engineers declared it safe to occupy for another five years, based on their belief that severe ground shaking occurs only once every 475 years.

The list of projects set to benefit from the 1990 bond funds includes state hospitals in Camarillo and Norwalk, other state-run mental health facilities, prison buildings from Folsom to San Quentin and state office buildings in Sacramento.

Although other, highly politicized pork-barrel projects not related to retrofitting are likely to spark rancorous debate, the Proposition 122 funds are expected to be spared that fate and win easy endorsement by state lawmakers and the governor. Disagreements over budgeting the money have been worked out in lengthy talks involving the Wilson Administration, legislators, the Seismic Safety Commission and budget analysts.

In fact, Gov. Pete Wilson had originally envisioned spending the entire $165 million now available under Proposition 122.

But the Legislature's independent analyst, Elizabeth Hill, recommended tighter controls on the money by paying for projects one step at a time. Consequently, budget negotiators reduced the gusher in Wilson's spending plan to a trickle amounting to $15 million to $28 million--enough to cover plans and drawings.

Here is how the money has been earmarked so far, according to McRonald:

Of the original $300 million, $50 million was set aside for grants to cities and counties to fix up local government buildings.

Those grants include $9 million to strengthen the walls of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

Of the remaining $250 million destined for state-owned buildings, $4 million is for costs of administration and consultants' studies to rank the vulnerable structures. The Seismic Safety Commission got $3 million.

Legislators peeled off another $23 million for pet projects in their districts, including improvements to the Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park and some Bay Area state buildings. On top of that, the state set aside a 20% cushion to cover unforeseen costs, McRonald said.

Still, the money in this year's budget does not erase concerns by Wirtz and other critics that the program has been slowed by an early emphasis on studies over actual construction.

Said Wirtz: "Engineers just want to study, study, study."

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