WASHINGTON, DC–The U.S. Forest Service is spending as much as $100 million–ten times more than what it publicly claimed–on consultants and studies to prepare for possible outsourcing of its staff, according to a review released today by the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In an effort to prevent the spread of news about these cost overruns, the Forest Service has directed that its offices “should not respond” to data requests from outside parties, “including the most recent competitive sourcing inquiry made by the National Federation of Federal Employees.” In a July 8, 2003 memo to agency leadership, Thomas Mills, Deputy Chief for Business Operations, wrote:
“Our current estimate of the cost of our competitive sourcing studies is $10 million. Because recent information leads us to think it might be higher, because of increased Congressional interest in our costs, and in order to improve the effectiveness of our competitive sourcing efforts in fiscal year (FY) 2004, we need to develop a more refined estimate of our FY 2003 competitive sourcing efforts.”
A review by NFFE and PEER of costs already incurred by the Forest Service indicates that the agency is likely spending $10 million just in California on meetings, consultants and studies leading to replacement of permanent agency staff by private contractors. According to the review, the national costs will range between $70 and $100 million for the current fiscal year, ending this October.
Outsourcing costs are being absorbed out of existing operations, as Congress has yet to appropriate funds to conduct competitive sourcing studies comparing contractor bids with costs of existing operations. In the Mills memo, the Forest Service admits that it has underestimated costs and is scrambling to compile new, defensible estimates.
“We are very concerned whether the agency is going to be able to continue to provide wildfire suppression at an appropriate staffing level and level of expertise if our fire workforce ends up being contracted out,” stated Bill Dougan, President of the Forest Service Council of NFFE. “It’s clear that the Forest Service is spending money that was appropriated to accomplish project work on the ground. For instance, in the Northern Rockies Region, $180,000 was taken from money appropriated for trail maintenance and used to pay for conducting competitive sourcing studies. This resulted in approximately 600 miles or more of trails not being maintained this year in that region, placing hikers and visitors at risk of injury. We’ve also know of cases where popular campgrounds in Montana that traditionally open on Memorial Day weekend did not open due to lack of funds to make necessary repairs and to hire temporary employees to work in the campgrounds. Perhaps most disturbing is a case in southern California on the San Bernardino National Forest, where a fire engine normally staffed 7 days a week was cut back to 5 day staffing due to one of the crew members participating on a competitive sourcing study team and not being available to man the fire engine.”
“The competitive sourcing program is supposed to increase the efficiency of public agencies, not disrupt them,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The rush to meet outsourcing quotas is costing taxpayers millions of dollars that should be devoted to protecting our national forests.”
Under plans released by PEER, the Forest Service is planning to look at replacing more than 10,000 of its approximately 34,000 person workforce with corporate employees by the end of FY 2007 in order to meet President Bush’s mandate that all federal agencies review at least half of all positions classified as potentially commercial under new streamlined contracting rules. Recently, the President’s Office of Management and Budget renounced fixed quotas and instead develop customized goals for each agency but there has been no apparent slowing of the effort in the Forest Service.