Members can’t sink Coast Guard plan

The U.S. Coast Guard is forging ahead with a plan to downsize its Civil Engineering Program (CEP) over the objections of several members of Congress who believe the move violates the 2002 Homeland Security Act and legislation passed last year that outlawed any cuts to the program without congressional approval.

The plan has yet to be unveiled, but remarks from Coast Guard management to employees and union leaders suggest that it will involve shuttering scores of civil-engineering units scattered in coastal regions of the country and centralizing operations in Norfolk, Va.

The units oversee the upkeep of docks, shorefronts, aircraft hangars, barracks and other Coast Guard facilities and assess the impact on the environment of new construction. They are staffed mainly by engineers and architects at the high end of the federal government’s pay grade.

Many critics of the Coast Guard’s efforts question whether the CEP’s maintenance duties and larger-scale projects can be managed from an office in Norfolk.

“I just don’t think it would work. I don’t think you can do the job from so far away,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said. Alaska likely would feel the brunt of the downsizing because of the heavy Coast Guard presence in the state.

The cuts would come at a time when the Coast Guard already is stretched thin, fueling concerns that it does not have the fleet, nor enough skilled personnel, to complete its mission.

The proposal nevertheless has been submitted to top Coast Guard officials and is likely to be signed off by those officials as well as by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the coming months. Then the Coast Guard will proceed with staff reductions without asking for congressional approval, according to DHS and Coast Guard officials.

The specter of deep cuts to the program has been causing distress among CEP employees and has aided organizing efforts in the overwhelmingly non-unionized staff, according to Randy Erwin, the legislative director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), which represents only the employees of the CEP’s Providence, R.I., unit.

The union approached Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) last spring when frustration in the Providence unit over management’s secrecy about its plan boiled over. The senator persuaded Senate appropriators to attach language to last year’s homeland security appropriations bill to require committee approval for any cuts or changes to the program.

In his Oct. 4 signing statement, President Bush made clear his intention to ignore the substance of the legislation, writing that the executive branch would construe the parts of the act that required congressional committee approval “as calling solely for notification.”

In a Jan. 19 letter to Chertoff, Reed and several of his Senate colleagues urged the DHS secretary to refrain from making any changes to the CEP without first consulting Congress.

“We believe that reducing Coast Guard staff and reorganizing without congressional approval is not appropriate given the clear congressional desire to further review any such reorganization in the Appropriations Act,” they wrote. They added that “dismantling the Civil Engineering Program violates the intent of Section 888 of the Homeland Security Act,” which barred significant changes to the Coast Guard’s mission after its transfer to DHS.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) signed the letter.

Yet in a Feb. 7 letter responding to Reed, a DHS official in the agency’s Office of Legislative Affairs, Donald H. Kent, reiterated the administration’s plan to inform Congress rather than seek its consent on any cuts.

“The USCG [U.S. Coast Guard] will brief the Office of Management and Budget and then notify Congress, as indicated in the President’s signing statement to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act for FY2007, before any implementation actions are taken,” he wrote.
That intention was confirmed in a February newsletter from a Coast Guard captain updating CEP employees on management’s plans.

“Some of you may have seen a letter from the United States Senate to Secretary Chertoff addressing [the reorganization plan],” Captain Jay Manik wrote in a posting to the Coast Guard’s internal website. “This letter does not change the Coast Guard’s intentions to inform Congress after we have approval from DHS and OMB.”

Efforts to downsize the CEP stretch back to 2003, when the Coast Guard announced it would hold an A-76 competition to outsource a greater share of the program’s work. Currently, the regional engineering units contract with local construction and design firms to carry out their mission.
In 2004, an A-76 team was sent to the Providence unit to prepare for the competition, which management said would take place in Oct. 2005, according to Marsha Levy, the president of the NFFE local in Providence.

The Coast Guard then suddenly backed off that plan, announcing late in 2005 that it would reorganize the program instead as an HPO, or a High Performing Organization.

An HPO is an ill-defined approach for cutting costs within a government organization without subjecting it to a public-private competition, as in the A-76 process. In an HPO, management submits an “in-house” bid proposing how the work of a government organization can be done more efficiently based on a “business case analysis” and other factors. The bid is then vetted by higher layers of management, rather than compared with other bids from private firms seeking a contract to perform government work.

In an interview, Manik characterized the Coast Guard’s HPO proposal as a “more efficient process.” He would neither predict when the proposal would be approved nor divulge any details of the plan, except to say that there would be cuts to personnel but “no change to the business we already send to private-sector firms.” The HPO will take two years to implement from the final date of approval, he added.

HPOs are untested in the Coast Guard, and there is confusion swirling about the effect on staff. In the Department of Defense, the approach has been popular with managers in recent years. Many of them see it as a way to meet OMB’s quotas for cost savings while shielding employees from the stress and potentially sharp cuts that might come about through an A-76 competition.

Among Coast Guard engineers, there is concern that the administration is using the HPO to slash jobs, without proving the cuts will save money and without granting employees who might lose their jobs or see them transferred to Norfolk any chance to appeal.

“Our strong hunch is that the Coast Guard HPO is driven by a numerical quota that they’re trying to reach,” Erwin of NFFE said.

Coast Guard management’s caginess about its plans is also fueling anxiety. It has kept the details of its proposal, or bid, under wraps since it was submitted to the Coast Guard’s resource director last fall. Manik insisted that competitive sourcing rules forbid the Coast Guard from releasing any details until the plan is approved.

“At this point in time, nobody is sure what they’re up to,” Levy said. “Employees are very uncertain about their future and I think what upsets them is that everything is so secret.”

There are several signs that deep cuts are coming. A top Coast Guard civilian manager, speaking at a meeting in Norfolk last spring, said the regional engineering units would be closed or sharply reduced with the mission centralized in Norfolk. CEP employees present at the meeting paraphrased his remarks in e-mails that flew around the regional units, causing alarm among staff.

Also, leaks from management sympathetic to the staff have confirmed many employees’ worst fears, Erwin said.

In response, employees have fled the program and management-labor relations have deteriorated sharply. The civil engineering staff has shrunk by more than 100 people to 440 over the past year. Employees of the Providence unit organized as a local of NFFE back in 2003 solely in response to management’s initial steps to hold an A-76 competition. And interest is growing among staff in Alaska, Ohio and California in unionizing, Erwin said.

Members of Congress are waiting to see the HPO proposal before they take further action, a staffer in Reed’s office said. Asked whether he thought the administration would steamroll Congress to enact the cuts, Young was skeptical. “We’ll see about that. We’ve had this fight with the White House ever since the creation of the Homeland Security Department,” he said.

Critics of the plan deny that CEP’s mission can be accomplished from a central location in Virginia. Levy points out that the Coast Guard ran into trouble when it centralized the engineering program in the past and was forced to reinstitute the current network of regional units during the 1990s.

She cited the example of a 1970s concrete-block building erected by the Coast Guard in Caribou, Maine that had the same design as a facility in Puerto Rico. Year after year of several-foot-high snowdrifts caused moisture to seep into the blocks. When the water froze, the building started to disintegrate.

“It didn’t work well before and I don’t think it will work well now,” Levy said.