A Year Later, California Drought-Relief Money Is Unspent

FIREBAUGH, Calif. (AP) -

More than $320 million that was supposed to be rushed to drought-stricken California communities sits unspent in government bank accounts more than a year after lawmakers voted to use it to provide water, protect wells from contamination and upgrade outdated systems.

The amount of money that remains untapped shows how slowly the wheels of government can turn even in a crisis.

Weeks after he declared a state of emergency, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration set aside $687 million to help house farmworkers and others struggling in drought-devastated counties. Nearly half has not been awarded or spent, according to figures provided to The Associated Press by the state Finance Department.

The package included some $239 million intended for local water systems such as pipelines and water-treatment plants. Those projects will not be awarded until fall, which is considered on schedule.

“The issue is not that this is taking longer than it should. It’s taking longer than the voters have been led to expect,” said Steve Boilard, who leads the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

Administration officials defend their handling of the money.

“Where there have been immediate needs, the state has committed immediate dollars,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Finance Department.

But large chunks of money were slow to reach Californians hit hardest by the drought.

The state set aside $21 million for housing assistance. Of that, $10 million in state money was spent, but only a fraction of $11 million from federal housing grants was tapped.

Only small, low-income communities were eligible to apply for the federal money. Many of those towns, she said, are often unable to manage money that must be turned around quickly, or they do not see it as their role.

The administration took more than a year to nearly exhaust $25 million for food banks in counties dealing with drought-related job losses.

To date, more than 650,000 boxes of food have been provided to people such as Fidel Fraga, 63, who was laid off three months ago from his job driving a tractor at a farm that grows tomatoes, cotton and almonds.

Every two weeks, Fraga and hundreds of other unemployed farmworkers gather at a park in Firebaugh, a Central Valley town 50 miles from Fresno. They line up to get a numbered ticket marking their place in line and wait for trucks to deliver boxes of rice, oatmeal and canned vegetables.

“I’d prefer to be working than asking for food,” Fraga said.

Last year, the state government offered help to communities looking to boost water supplies by accelerating the spending of $472 million that was approved by voters for water projects in 2006.

About half that money was awarded by the Department of Water Resources last fall, but some of those projects have yet to see construction begin because local governments are still looking for the best deals and securing other sources of funding.

The state takes time for a reason. If officials are too quick to spend, they risk paying for shoddy work by unqualified companies and inflicting unintentional environment damage.

Still, some say the urgency of the drought demands quicker action. Democrats called on the governor to get water-use efficiency projects started in months rather than years.