Homeland Security clears up books, but hiring still frozen

Fears of a budget shortfall prove unfounded, but officials still won’t start adding staff again until 2005.

The Homeland Security Department has successfully reconciled the budget issues that prompted a hiring freeze earlier this year, but agency officials will not resume recruitment because they already have reached their fiscal 2004 personnel goals, a DHS spokesman said Friday.

In March, DHS officials put a hold on hiring agents at the bureaus of Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services. At the time, the agency said an accounting review showed ICE and CPB might be on track to exceed their budgets by more than $1 billion, and the hiring freeze was intended to prevent a larger financial problem.

Agency auditors have determined the projected deficit was a result of officials reconciling various accounting systems, according to DHS spokesman Dennis Murphy.

"We sorted out all the differences in budgeting between the agencies. Our budgets are tight, but we're not going to run any huge deficits," Murphy said. "We know where the issues were, we've moved money to the right places."

While Murphy disputed the term "hiring freeze" -- he described it as a slowdown -- he said DHS would not restart its recruiting campaign this year. Many people who had applied to work at ICE, CPB or CIS and believed they were on track to be hired have been kept in limbo by the personnel move. Some potential employees complained that they were being kept in the dark by federal personnel officials.

According to Murphy, recruitment is no longer necessary because so many current DHS employees have stayed longer than expected. DHS had assumed "attrition rates that were equal to the historic attrition rates," Murphy said. "It's an important mission and people were staying longer to carry that out. We've had to slow down and put the brakes on the massive recruiting."

When the budget confusion was first revealed earlier this year, Democrats said the issue was compromising domestic security.

"All these entities perform front-line missions critical to securing our nation," said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, ranking member on the Select Committee on Homeland Security, in a letter to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., sharply criticized Friday's revelation.

"I don't know whether we should be more concerned that they can't balance their checkbooks, or that they're not adding any more border guards this year. Either way, there seems to be a certain level of confusion over there at DHS," Maloney said.

According to Murphy, the agencies in question are fully staffed. The bottom line for applicants at the affected agencies is that new hires will not be brought in until next year.

"We're not seeking to bring hundreds of people on board because we have reached our goals for the year," he said.