EPA plans to set aside $12 mil­lion for em­ployee buy­outs in com­ing months

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY BRADY DEN­NIS brady.den­nis@wash­post.com Juliet Eilperin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency plans to set aside $12 mil­lion for buy­outs and early re­tire­ments in com­ing months as part of an ef­fort to be­gin “re­shap­ing” the agency’s work­force un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In a memo, the EPA’s act­ing chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, David Bloom, said the move is how the agency plans to spend part of roughly $24 mil­lion in “carry-over funds” — es­sen­tially, money that was not spent in the pre­vi­ous fis­cal year and is rolled over to the cur­rent one.

Be­yond the loom­ing buy­outs, the memo de­tails $800,000 al­lo­cated for travel ex­penses for EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt’s se­cu­rity de­tail, $1.4 mil­lion for cloud­com­put­ing ser­vices and other data stor­age, and $2 mil­lion for con­sol­i­dat­ing the agency’s phys­i­cal foot­print.

“Se­nior lead­er­ship made de­ci­sions to al­lo­cate the carry-over funds set aside ear­lier this year to ad­dress agency’s pri­or­i­ties for in­cen­tive pay­ments for work­force re­shap­ing, sup­port for the Of­fice of En­force­ment and Com­pli­ance (OGC), travel for the ad­min­is­tra­tor’s pro­tec­tive de­tail, rent, con­tin­ued space re­duc­tion ef­forts, eDis­cov­ery, agency cloud ser­vices and the OGC’s work­force sup­port,” Bloom wrote.

EPA spokes­woman Liz Bow­man ad­dressed the po­ten­tial buy­outs in a state­ment late Thurs­day.

“Stream­lin­ing and re­or­ga­niz­ing is good gov­ern­ment and im­por­tant to max­i­miz­ing tax­payer dol­lars. This in­cludes look­ing at de­vel­op­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­di­vid­u­als to re­tire early,” she said. “It’s a process that mir­rors what the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion EPA did about four years ago, to en­sure that pay­roll ex­penses do not over­take funds used for vi­tal pro­grams to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.”

An ad­vance copy of the fis­cal 2018 bud­get pro­posal for the EPA, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is set to re­lease next week, in­di­cates the ad­min­is­tra­tion will pro­ceed with its plans to cut the agency’s bud­get by more than 31 per­cent from its cur­rent level. The pro­posal was ob­tained by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Clean Air Agen­cies.

The plan would in­clude the elim­i­na­tion of sev­eral ma­jor re­gional pro­grams, in­clud­ing ones aimed at restor­ing the Great Lakes, Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and Puget Sound, as well as the EPA’s lead­risk re­duc­tion pro­gram. It would cut cat­e­gor­i­cal grants, which sup­port state and lo­cal ef­forts to ad­dress ar­eas of con­cern, in­clud­ing pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure, and air and wa­ter qual­ity, by nearly half to $597 mil­lion.

Bow­man de­clined Fri­day to com­ment on the bud­get doc­u­ment’s au­then­tic­ity but said via email: “The bud­get pri­or­i­tizes fed­eral funding for work in in­fra­struc­ture, air and wa­ter qual­ity, and en­sur­ing the safety of chem­i­cals in the mar­ket­place. The bud­get aims to re­duce re­dun­dan­cies and in­ef­fi­cien­cies and fo­cus on our core statu­tory mis­sion.”

Last month, the EPA made clear it in­tended to be­gin of­fer­ing buy­outs as part of its re­sponse to an ex­ec­u­tive or­der by Pres­i­dent Trump aimed at stream­lin­ing agen­cies through­out the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Act­ing deputy ad­min­is­tra­tor Mike Flynn wrote in a let­ter to re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tors and other EPA of­fi­cials that the White House had asked agen­cies to start tak­ing “im­me­di­ate ac­tions” aimed at re­duc­ing their work­force.

“In light of this guid­ance, we will be­gin the steps nec­es­sary to ini­ti­ate an early out/buy out . . . pro­gram,” he wrote, adding that the goal is to com­plete the first buy­outs by the end of Septem­ber.

Flynn also noted that while a gov­ern­ment-wide hir­ing freeze had been lifted, hir­ing at the EPA would re­main at a stand­still. “Given our re­source sit­u­a­tion, we will con­tinue a freeze on ex­ter­nal hir­ing,” he said. “Very lim­ited ex­cep­tions to this ex­ter­nal hir­ing freeze may be per­mit­ted on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

Nei­ther that let­ter nor last week’s memo con­tained de­tails about how much the EPA plans to shrink its work­force.

There are two main ways the agency could en­tice em­ploy­ees to leave. A buy­out is a cash pay­ment to en­cour­age a fed­eral worker to leave voluntarily. In most cases, the max­i­mum pay­out is $25,000, which is tax­able. Em­ploy­ees who ac­cept buy­outs must leave by a spe­cific date and can­not re­turn to fed­eral em­ploy­ment within five years un­less they re­pay the en­tire, pre­tax buy­out amount.

Vol­un­tary Early Re­tire­ment Author­ity (VERA), in fed­eral lingo, al­lows fed­eral em­ploy­ees to re­tire be­fore they typ­i­cally would qual­ify for full ben­e­fits. Early re­tire­ment gen­er­ally al­lows em­ploy­ees un­der ei­ther of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s main re­tire­ment sys­tems — the Civil Ser­vice Re­tire­ment Sys­tem and the Fed­eral Em­ploy­ees Re­tire­ment Sys­tem — to re­tire at age 50 with 20 years of ser­vice or at any age with 25 years of ser­vice.

In 2014, dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the EPA paid more than $11 mil­lion in in­cen­tives to get 436 em­ploy­ees to voluntarily leave their jobs. It also paid ac­cu­mu­lated an­nual leave pay­ments of $4.9 mil­lion, for a to­tal of $16.2 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to EPA union of­fi­cials. More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/en­ergy-en­vi­ron­ment

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