Lawmakers urge EPA inspector to hold off on staff cuts

Five members of a House panel have sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency acting Inspector General Bill Roderick, urging him to refrain from following through with staff reductions in response to proposed budget cuts.

The lawmakers said Roderick could require about 30 full-time employees to leave as early as April 30. Budget constraints also could prompt the IG operation to close ofices and conduct a reduction in force, they said.

But the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee argued there is no immediate need for the office to start cutting staff. Lawmakers might not end up backing the proposed budget cuts during the appropriations process, they noted.

Under the continuing resolution passed by Congress last month to fund EPA and most other nondefense agencies through the remainder of fiscal 2007, the EPA investigative office received a $900,000 increase. But in the proposed budget for fiscal 2008, the Bush administration would cut the IG office's budget by $5.1 million, a 10 percent decrease from the fiscal 2006 enacted level.

"We are concerned that if Congress does not approve the requested OIG budget cuts, your buyout initiative could cause unnecessary loss of experienced personnel, workforce disruption and waste of taxpayer dollars," members of the committee wrote in the March 22 letter. "We urge you not to proceed in this manner."

Roderick's proposed reductions would include early retirements and buyouts, possible layoffs and closures of branch offices and a hiring freeze for specialist jobs.

John Manibusan, a spokesman for the IG office, said Roderick's e-mail explaining the buyouts was sent to 362 full-time employees nationwide, though it is unknown how many have been offered buyouts. He added there has been no determination of how many facilities could close as a result of the office's tight budget.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group, said reducing staff will severely hinder the office's investigations.

"If ever an agency needed a strong Office of Inspector General, it is the EPA in 2007," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The tremendous impact that EPA decisions have on people's lives deserves independent scrutiny from auditors and other investigators who can shred agency technical double-talk to get to the bottom of problems."

The EPA inspector general's office consists of auditors, program analysts and investigators responsible for evaluating the agency and its contractors in areas such as enforcing anti-pollution rules or addressing problems tied to climate change, asbestos and hazardous waste.

Last week's letter was signed by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, and Democrats Diana Degette of Colorado, Albert Wynn of Maryland, and Hilda Solis of California. Republican John Shimkus of Illinois also signed.

"As a strong advocate for our nation's federal employees," Wynn said, "I am very concerned that Mr. Roderick is taking actions that could [adversely] impact OIG employees before any action has been taken on Capitol Hill."

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