House panel questions plan to trim federal guards

Members of a House committee on Wednesday expressed concerns over a proposal to cut Federal Protective Service staffing and increase fees charged to agencies using FPS' security services.

The plan, discussed at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, is part of President Bush's fiscal 2008 budget proposal. Administration officials recommended cutting the number of FPS law enforcement officers and full-time civilian employees by more than 25 percent, from 1,295 to 950.

Lawmakers noted that this marks the twelve-year anniversary of the bombing in Oklahoma City. "It reminds us of the extraordinary role of the FPS," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the committee.

Michael Jackson, deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, said the administration's plan will result in a "refocused workforce" composed mainly of inspectors. Jackson said more responsibilities would be shifted to contract security guards.

"Security at federal facilities will not diminish," Jackson said. "Those services, offered through a contract guard force, will be strengthened with the emphasis on an inspector workforce and a strong contract guard program."

FPS has faced funding challenges since it moved from the General Services Administration to the Homeland Security Department in 2003. In the transition, FPS lost $139 million in subsidies from GSA and now relies on user fees.

Jackson said the proposal will not involve layoffs, but instead will provide employees with opportunities in FPS' parent agency, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, and with DHS at large. They also may be offered voluntary retirement, he said.

"I appreciate that [the proposal] does not involve layoffs in a workforce that has already been thinned enormously," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

But representatives from the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Fraternal Order of Police argued that implementing such a plan would leave federal buildings and the nation vulnerable.

Chuck Canterbury, president of NFOP, said shifting officer responsibilities to contractors would significantly hinder security, largely because contractors do not have as much training or experience as FPS officers.

Four FPS officers questioned at the hearing affirmed that contractors have only one week of training and have the same authority as a private citizen to make an arrest. FPS officers, however, are required to undergo rigorous training at one of the four Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in the United States as well as an extensive screening process, Canterbury said.

Committee members also expressed concern that a reduction in FPS police officers would transfer the responsibility of responding to calls from federal agencies to local law enforcement officers.

"Federal funding for local law enforcement programs has been slashed by more than $2 billion," Norton said. "To now ask these same local officers to assume additional federal responsibilities for protecting federal property is adding insult to injury."

Also included in the budget proposal is a plan to increase the user fee agencies pay FPS to supply them with law enforcement officers in their buildings from 39 cents to 57 cents per square foot. This is intended to help FPS recover the estimated costs for providing basic security services.

But Jackson acknowledged that agencies have indicated the higher fee would be a burden, and as a result, committee members questioned whether FPS should be changed from a fee-based organization to one with its own budget.

Jackson said it is much easier for the agency to charge the fees than to rely on one large appropriation. "There are many places in DHS where we are fee-funded," he said. "That's a legitimate way to do business, and it works."

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