DHS could be overestimating costs of new border agents

The Homeland Security Department could be overestimating the cost of hiring Customs and Border Protection agents, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released on Monday.

"Overestimating cost items could result in CBP requesting more funding than needed for new agents, while underestimating cost items could result in CBP using current operating funds for new agent costs, thereby reducing funds available for current operations," said Richard Stana, director for homeland security and justice issues at GAO, in a report to Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.

CBP anticipates it will cost $170,360 to recruit, hire, train, equip and ultimately deploy each agent it hires in fiscal 2010, up from $159,642 in fiscal 2009. But when GAO auditors analyzed the 93 items CBP used to arrive at the 2009 estimate, they could not validate the prices the bureau assigned to 12 items, accounting for 43 percent of 2009 costs.

Significantly, Stana wrote, bureau officials estimated a locality pay rate of 16.23 percent for CBP officers hired in fiscal 2009. That percentage was drawn from high-cost cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco rather than less expensive Southwestern cities where new border agents are more likely to be stationed, GAO noted. CBP officials told the watchdog agency that they used the higher locality pay rate because they anticipated that some agents might be deployed to the border between the United States and Canada, where locality pay rates are higher. But the report said locality pay in those northern postings still is lower than the 16.23 percent average CBP used.

Locality pay is important, the report said, because it affects estimates for several categories of overtime and Social Security and Federal Employees Retirement System payments. If CBP had calculated average locality pay for new officers using a 14.1 percent rate, the cost would have been $803 lower per agent, and the overall cost for hiring the 2,200 agents who joined the agency in fiscal 2009 would have been $1.8 million less.

CBP also did not provide documentation for its estimated costs for purchasing and maintaining new vehicles, vehicle equipment and night-vision goggles, or for recruiting new officers, Stana wrote. He also noted CBP did not calculate inflation when assessing the cost of basic training, and relied on faulty assumptions in determining the cost of fitness and medical exams, and drug testing.

Jerald Levine, the director of DHS' Government Accountability Office-Office of Inspector General Liaison Office, expressed concern that the report analyzed cost estimates performed in 2007 using auditing standards GAO released in 2009. In response, Stana wrote that those standards have been established best practices for years.

Regardless of differences, Levine said in his comments that DHS would comply with GAO's recommendations.

"New processes are being developed and will be implemented as part of the annual update to verifying and standardizing costing methodologies," he wrote. "The action plan will include written directives and standard policies to increase reliability."

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