Earlier this month Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa went to Washington in his capacity as president of theU.S. Conference of Mayors and scolded the federal government for its chronic underfunding of cities. He came home in time for the release of an audit report criticizing his administration for leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money on the table. Why? In some cases, the city departments the mayor oversees simply failed to apply.
Did Villaraigosa mess up? In this case, perhaps not.
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.
Greuel's report on competitive grant funding available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 at first appeared especially troubling. Los Angeles in recent years has lost $10 million as congressional earmarks have been pulled, and federal budget cuts have led to the loss of "formula" grants on which city departments have long relied for their regular programming. That money has to be replaced, and recovery act grants were one available source, even if applying for them was more complex for city departments and even if winning competitive grants is by no means a sure thing. One asset voters saw in Villaraigosa when they first sent him to office was his high profile and his ability to throw around his clout with Democrats in Washington. That's also one benefit the city ought to be able to reap from his leadership of the national mayor's group. But what's the point, if his administration can't pick up the federal money that does become available?
Greuel said the city should have a centralized grant office to keep its antennae up for opportunities and to ensure that applications are solid and timely. It turns out, though, that Villaraigosa now has just such an office, parked not in departments, where expertise in competitive grants may be sparse, but with the mayor, who can and should shepherd all departmental grant efforts. Yes, City Hall got only $261 million of $1.3 billion in recovery act funds available nationwide, but that's why they're called competitive grants. This city's take was about on par with other cities'.
Should we try to win more? Of course — always. Applying for grants is part of Los Angeles' new normal, and expertise in the process should be built up in the mayor's office — and anywhere else it can do the city some good.