Agency to seek buyout, early retirement authority despite restrictions from Congress.
The Environmental Protection Agency is closing an office in Las Vegas next year, according to an internal notice obtained by Government Executive, possibly putting the agency at odds with congressional appropriators as it aims to reassign impacted employees at several locations across the country.
The closure will affect workers at the agency’s Las Vegas Finance Center, which operates under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. The consolidation will save the agency money while improving performance, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a July 24 memorandum.
“Consolidation of the finance centers will enhance the delivery of finance services agencywide, increase personnel cross-training and professional growth activities, and decrease long-term costs and agency lease holdings,” Wheeler said.
The closure will take effect by March 21, 2020, Wheeler said, as part of a “reorganization of EPA finance centers.” All of the Las Vegas office’s functions will be absorbed by one of the agency’s three other finance locations: the Research Triangle Park Finance Center in North Carolina, the Cincinnati Finance Center or the Washington Finance Center located in EPA’s D.C. headquarters. All impacted personnel will receive reassignments to one of those offices or “other OFCO organizations,” Wheeler said. EPA will create a new grants branch at Research Triangle Park to absorb those functions from the Las Vegas office.
Just 16 employees are affected by the closure, according to an agency spokesman, all of whom will have the opportunity to relocate. EPA is also seeking authority from the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget to offer early retirements and buyouts to eligible, impacted employees. The spokesman said the relocations would improve workflow and add new opportunities for employees.
“This will consolidate payment functions for contracts and grants within one center, thus achieving operational efficiencies for the agency and creating more cross-training opportunities for our employees,” the spokesman said.
The financial office closure would be the second such EPA outpost to shutter in Las Vegas under the Trump administration. Last year, the agency announced it was closing an Office of Research and Development laboratory in the city, sending “management directed reassignment” letters to more than 40 employees stationed there. Employees were given a few months to either accept a position at an office in another part of the country or risk being “separated from the federal service.” More than a dozen human resources employees located across the street from the research lab also faced a mandatory relocation.
EPA offered those employees reimbursement for relocation expenses including transportation costs and per diems for employees and immediate family members, general moving costs, lease termination costs, selling or buying transaction costs, temporary storage of household items, relocation income tax allowance and up to 60 days of temporary housing. Any employee who did not accept a reassignment and was subsequently laid off was eligible for up to one year’s salary as severance pay.
The Federal Employee Relocation Center, which provides relocation services for agencies throughout government, is located within EPA’s financial office.
EPA could face pushback for its new closure plan, as a fiscal 2019 spending bill placed limits on the agency’s authority to close offices. Appropriators made clear in that bill they did not provide any funds "to consolidate or close any regional offices" at EPA. They went on to say their directives applied to “proposed reorganizations, workforce restructur[ing], reshaping, transfer of functions, or downsizing, especially those of significant national or regional importance, and include closures, consolidations, and relocations of offices, facilities, and laboratories."
The agency said it has the authority to close the facility because it is a “center” and not an “office.”
“EPA has the authority to take this action,” the spokesman said. “The Las Vegas Finance Center is part of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer—it is not a regional office, nor is it an office, facility, or laboratory within a regional office.”
EPA threatened more closures across the country in 2017, but those did not come to fruition.