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Audit finds minor issues with San Joaquin County agencies; programs have complied, been streamlined

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Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2009 10:00 pm

Federal audits found that one San Joaquin County area agency had not outfitted an $80,000 HAZMAT vehicle with an alarm, and another agency hadn't filed follow-up reports properly. It also found some clerical errors and unreported overtime.

The audit showed there were some areas where local agencies needed to tighten up and obey protocol, but no significant instances of waste, fraud or abuse were uncovered.

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For the San Joaquin Office of Emergency Services, there were violations with financial accounting, property management and record keeping.

The HAZMAT vehicle, which was purchased with grant money from Homeland Security, did not have a security alarm installed at the time of the audit, and it was left in an area in which it could be tampered with during the night, where it was stored at the office of emergency services in Stockton. Since the audit, the vehicle has been fitted with a $2,000 alarm and new security precautions have been taken.

A staff of six workers rotate shifts with the vehicle every week. They remain on standby and bring the vehicle home with them. Ronald Baldwin, director of emergency operations for San Joaquin County, said this helps keep costs down and streamlines efficiency.

"They can take it out if there is an emergency," he said. "It cuts down on the response time if they don't have to come back to the (OES) station."

Baldwin said having the crew bring the vehicle home with them prevents the county from having to pay the workers full-time wages and keep extra staff in the station for when the HAZMAT vehicle is out on a call.

Another violation came about because HAZMAT employees worked overtime that hadn't been approved. Baldwin said the violation was "pretty petty" since it came during training exercises over the course of two years, and the time during training is a little more difficult to budget. Baldwin said they repaid $1,000 rather than fight the claim.

"It was a half-hour here and a half-hour there," Baldwin said. "It built up over the course of two or three years … Rather than fight it, we just paid it back."

The final violation for OES was through some clerical errors with the labeling of invoices. Baldwin said a special stamp was purchased that identifies what is being bought with Homeland Security grant money.

Baldwin said they have been audited by the government several times since then and the most recent audit in March found no violations.

The San Joaquin Regional Rail commission had three areas in which it was not in compliance with Homeland Security.

One area was with "after-action" reports being submitted to the federal agency. The reports are important because they help identify a community's ability to handle terrorist attacks and show where improvements need to be made.

A watchdog of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, criticized Homeland Security in April for not using the reports to press state and local governments to take action when training exercises reveal an issue that needs to be addressed.

Brian Schmidt, director of planning and programming for the rail commission, said many first responder groups from Stockton to San Jose were part of the training program and they took longer than the allotted 45 days to submit a report to Homeland Security. "We didn't keep up on reminder e-mails and phone calls," he said.

Another area in which the rail commission was not in compliance was in equipment purchases. According to the monitoring report from Homeland Security, the rail commission made a purchase that was allowed but coded improperly. Schmidt said the error in coding was on an invoice that was put on the Homeland Security grant.

He said it was corrected after the fact and that the operation has been simplified. He said three or four people were sharing duties before, and some items were falling through the cracks.

Schmidt said the issues were due to clerical errors, misunderstandings or a lack of follow-through on the rail commission's part. He said they have streamlined operations and given the responsibility of tracking serial numbers and dealing with Homeland Security to one person.

The final area was in regards to some BlackBerries and monitors that were purchased. The purchases were allowed, but the log sheet for the grant program wasn't filled out correctly.

Schmidt said serial numbers were left off the log, and when they purchased new monitors, they didn't code those correctly, either.

He said the confusion was due to the program just getting underway and forms being changed along the way. "Things got confused on our side," he said.

Jay Alan, director of communications for the California Emergency Management Agency, said it's entirely possible that forms and methods were changed midstream on local agencies. He said that the guidance that comes from Washington, D.C. can change the way things are tracked and accounted for.

"It's not uncommon that the i's and t's aren't crossed and dotted correctly," he said. "It's not intentional; it's often clerical."

He said that oversight and assistance is available to communities such as Lodi, Woodbridge and Galt, and that the communities and his office have a good working relationship.

"They can and do call," he said.

Alan said the statements from the rail commission and Office of Emergency Services are accurate, and they appear to have corrected everything the audits said they needed to fix.

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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