Vacancies at the top put FEMA's funding in jeopardy

With the nation hurtling toward another hurricane season while key Federal Emergency Management Agency positions are vacant or filled only temporarily, House appropriators threatened Wednesday to withhold FEMA funds unless it permanently fills its top leadership positions.

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said the agency, which has no permanent director, is only at 73 percent of its authorized staffing level. Four of the 10 division chiefs and four of the 10 regional directors are serving in an acting capacity, he added.

The subcommittee will withhold fiscal 2007 appropriations for the positions if they are not filled, Rogers said at a hearing on FEMA's budget.

"I want people in these positions where we can look them square in the eye . . . and get a commitment from them," Rogers said. "Let the word go forth from this place that we want a permanent director of FEMA and we want these regional directors and division directors to stop acting and be permanent."

Subcommittee ranking member Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., said FEMA has struggled in recent years due to losses of experienced staff and insufficient resources, all contributing to government failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison told the panel that he has directed the agency to achieve a 95 percent staffing level by June 1, the start of the next hurricane season. He said the agency probably will not meet that goal, but will come "very darn close."

Paulison noted that the pending $19.8 billion fiscal 2006 supplemental for Hurricane Katrina recovery operations includes funding that will allow FEMA to hire more personnel in the areas of logistics, inventory control and contract management.

He also said FEMA will have a permanent director by June 1, but declined to say if that will be him. "I serve at the pleasure of the president and will do what he asks me to do," Paulison said.

In defense of current agency personnel, Paulison said those serving in acting positions are qualified and experienced. "There is not a void at the leadership level," he said.

Paulison also reaffirmed that FEMA will seek competitive bids for work that was given to four companies through no-bid contracts last fall in response to Katrina. He said the bidding process for local work along the Gulf Coast could begin as early as this week, while bidding for work at the national level will occur before June 1.

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