Bill would let Coast Guard award retention bonuses

The Coast Guard could award bonuses of up to $20,000 to workers with certain critical skills under legislation introduced Friday by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Intended to help the service retain highly skilled workers, the bonus authority is one of several personnel and property management flexibilities included in Snowe's bill, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2003 (S. 733). The bill should help the Coast Guard balance its homeland security duties with its traditional transportation missions, said Snowe, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and the Coast Guard.

A spokesman for Snowe said the bonuses would be targeted at personnel with hard-to-find technical skills, such as master mechanics and some aviation technicians. "It would encourage retention of skilled workers," said spokesman Dave Lackey. Employees must have at least four years left in their enlistment to be eligible for the bonuses.

The bill also authorizes $500 million for the Deepwater program, the Coast Guard's 20-year project to upgrade its offshore fleet, but Snowe may try to add additional funding that would accelerate the project, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Wenk.

"Sen. Snowe has very serious concerns about Deepwater, and does want to fast-track it down to 10 years, so you could very well see something added [to the legislation]," Wenk said. She added that Snowe wants to get feedback on accelerating the Deepwater project-perhaps through congressional hearings-before adding more funding to the legislation. Snowe has said that shortening the timeframe of Deepwater would help the Coast Guard perform its homeland security missions.

The bill would raise the Coast Guard's personnel ceiling to 45,500 positions by the end of fiscal 2004. Additionally, it would allow the service to enter into long-term leases with the private sector to upgrade Coast Guard property. The service is currently barred from issuing leases that are longer than five years, which is not enough time for some infrastructure improvements, according to Wenk.

Snowe will hold hearings on the bill later this year.

In other Coast Guard news, President Bush on Monday announced the service will buy 700 homeland security boats for its Maritime Safety and Security Teams, special units that provide port security. Bush was speaking to an audience of Coast Guard personnel in Philadelphia, where he praised the service for its homeland security work. The first of the twenty-foot boats will be available in July, according to a Coast Guard statement.

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