Disappointment turns to hope

"This has been a whirlwind, big time," said Dennis Mills, crew chief and chief steward of Local 3004 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at the base. "After that Black Friday, we weren't seeing this coming."

Mills said that employees were starting to resign themselves to the fact that they would have to begin the search for new jobs, or face the possibility of uprooting their families from the Cape. Mills said the first reaction to the change was disbelief, followed by relief.

"There was some wariness," said Mills. "They were telling us we had a job but not a plane. How does that work? Then we were told that they were changing the mission. It was such a weight off my shoulders."

The type of aircraft on base determines the mission, said Mills. Instead of working on F-15s, the Camp Edwards employees will have different aircraft at their station. Which kind is unknown as of now, but Mills said whatever it is has given the workers a new lease on life on Cape Cod.

"Some guys still have trepidation, but listen, if it's a different aircraft we'll have, we'll go to school and get retrained. We should be looking at this as a full glass, not even half full."

Training center idea gets boost

The possibility of a Regional Homeland Security Training Center also being established on Otis is once again in play with the latest announcement.

"I think a lot of things go back on the front burner," said Mark Forest, the Save Otis Coalition chairman and Cape Cod aide to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Quincy. "We've been thrown a lifeline but we still need to be vigilant. Things could change. We have to monitor what the president does and then Congress. We've dodged a bullet."

The 102nd Fighter Interceptor Wing and its 18 F-15 jet aircraft are still bound for Barnes ANG Base in Westfield as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

The announcement came shortly after Gov. Mitt Romney and state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly sued in federal court to temporarily stop the Otis recommendation. A federal judge in Boston ruled against them.

The Bush Administration last week went to the U.S. Supreme Court to also stop a spate of similar state lawsuits, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ruled against the administration.

Delahunt said the change of course by BRAC "gives us real hope" for keeping Otis alive. "Coupled with the MMR's outstanding response to Hurricane Katrina, it is a reaffirmation of the critical importance of the base as a regional center for homeland security."

Forest said it is now clear that BRAC and its staffers, along with the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, were aware of the implications of closing Otis.

"Now they want to assure some sort of viability and stability for the base," Forest said. "We need to remain vigilant. Things could change. We're not ready to pop open the champagne bottles yet. We have to stay focused on this roller coaster ride. But we're still alive."

Reporters Silene Gordon and Paul Gately and managing editor John Basile contributed to this report.


Move to lift ban on VA competitive sourcing prompts opposition
By Amelia Gruber
[email protected]
Senate Democrats, union officials and veterans groups are rallying support to strip a health care bill of a provision that would allow the Veterans Affairs Department to resume competitive sourcing studies.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, plans to introduce an amendment to the 2005 Veterans Health Care Act (S. 1182) on Thursday that would preserve language in a 1981 law, which - as interpreted by the VA general counsel in April 2003 - has effectively stopped public-private job competitions at the VA. Akaka will introduce the amendment during the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee markup of the bill.
The existing statutory language bars the Veterans Health Administration from comparing the cost of keeping work in-house to that of outsourcing it unless Congress directs funds toward such a study. It is on a list of barriers to competitive sourcing that the Bush administration has said it would like to see eliminated.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, included language lifting the ban as part of the health care act.
"As a general matter, I believe it makes good fiscal sense for government to measure its performance against that of its counterparts in the private sector," Craig wrote in an Aug. 23 letter defending his move to an American Federation of Government Employees representative. "Based on that belief, it follows that I do not agree that anyone should be statutorily protected from having his or her performance measured against others in a similar field."
But backed by the union and a number of veterans groups, Akaka will offer an amendment striking Craig's provision from the bill. The Veterans Affairs Department should not be spending money running competitive sourcing studies when the agency is under a budget crunch, Craig's opponents argue.
"[We do] not support the use of critically scarce medical care resources for the purpose of studying public-private competition," Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan wrote in a Wednesday letter backing Akaka. "We firmly believe these dollars would be better used in the direct provision of actual medical care."
Leaders of the Blinded Veterans Association, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America wrote similar letters.
"Even as retired veterans and VA employees are being displaced from their homes and as loyal VA workers are rolling up their sleeves to help people devastated by the hurricane, the administration is ready to add to the devastation by using hard-won health care dollars on programs that will destabilize the VA health care workplace and put veterans working in VA facilities out of work," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement.
VA's budget should be focused on patient care and repairs of medical facilities, Gage said.
But Craig argued that VA's budget of more than $70 billion is large enough to sustain competitive sourcing. "I am confident that allocating a small amount of this budget towards programs and reviews will ultimately bolster the quality of VA services," he said.
Veterans Affairs hasn't been active in competitive sourcing because of the statutory restrictions and has earned red lights - the lowest of three ratings - for both progress and accomplishments in that area of the Bush administration's quarterly management score card. The department is looking at alternatives to public-private competitions, including business-process reengineering studies, which are geared toward improving the in-house workforce's efficiency.


Morale Among FEMA Workers, on the Decline for Years, Hits Nadir
By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, September 14, 2005; B02
Morale at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is probably as low as it can get.
Hurricane Katrina punched FEMA with a vengeance. The boss is gone, employees are working long hours and saddened by the loss of life and destruction, and the agency is on the verge of becoming a laughingstock.
"We're kind of at a tipping point," said Leo Bosner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at FEMA headquarters.
How employees feel about FEMA -- and whether they stick with the agency in the wake of Katrina -- may hinge on the next steps taken by Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary, and Congress, which seems likely to debate whether to return FEMA's independence.
Yesterday, R. David Paulison, the acting FEMA director, sent a memo to employees praising them for their response to Katrina. "You have had the additional burden of hearing much criticism of the agency," he wrote. "Criticism such as this makes doing your job even more difficult than it already is. However, like the true professionals you are, you have kept this agency focused on its mission."
FEMA, of course, has been buffeted by controversy in the past, but Bosner said that this time the mood is different. "It's harder for people to hold their heads up now," he said.
John Gage, president of AFGE, said FEMA has suffered from "incompetent management," adding that "the thing that irritates me is that federal workers take a hit on this."
A senior career official at FEMA said employees are dedicated to helping disaster victims and willing to work with the party in charge but believe that political appointees should be approved for top agency jobs only if they can show extensive experience in crisis management and emergency preparedness. The career official spoke on condition that he not be identified because of fear of retribution.
A decline in morale among FEMA employees has been captured in snapshots over the past few years.
In a 2003 survey of federal employees, FEMA ranked last among large agencies in worker satisfaction. Today, the Partnership for Public Service and the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation will release their list of "Best Places to Work" in the government, and the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA, is next to last in the rankings -- No. 29 out of 30 large agencies.
Homeland Security employees gave low marks to their leaders in such areas as policies and practices, resources to get the job done and fair treatment, data used for the ranking show.
Related issues were aired 12 years ago in a study by the National Academy of Public Administration titled "Coping With Catastrophe." The study called for a "reduction of political appointees to a director and deputy director, development of a competent, professional career staff and appointment of a career executive director."
The NAPA study said eliminating political appointees at FEMA would help "to assure that future leaders are qualified and trained for their jobs."
Although FEMA's standing and morale improved during the Clinton administration, employees began to feel out of the loop during the Bush administration, the career official said. Decisions were made behind closed doors, and any sense of teamwork between political appointees and experienced employees disappeared, the official said.
Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colo., said FEMA lost experienced employees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for various reasons.
Some employees felt they were viewed as Clinton administration carryovers and not welcome in the Bush administration; some employees felt they could no longer do their jobs; and some employees were ready to leave and found opportunities in the private sector because of a demand for homeland security expertise, she said.
When FEMA was merged into Homeland Security, many FEMA employees felt they no longer counted because they saw law enforcement as the "cutting edge," Tierney said. FEMA employees believed they were losing funds and responsibilities, she added.
Homeland Security, meanwhile, viewed FEMA as failing to grasp "the new realities" and slow to embrace the administration's agenda, she said.
Once again, Tierney said, FEMA needs to be studied and improved. "We need an independent look, that the public will trust, at what we are doing in this country about protecting our society from extreme events," she said.


Volunteers set for California border vigil
By Jerry Seper
September 15, 2005

Volunteers will man observation posts along the U.S.-Mexico border in California beginning tomorrow to spot illegal aliens and drug smugglers with plans to stay until they are relieved by U.S. Border Patrol agents or National Guard troops, an organizer said yesterday.
The vigil, timed to begin on Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, was called to highlight what Friends of the Border Patrol, which organized the event, said is the failure of Congress and the White House to secure the U.S. border.
"Our borders are not under the operational control of our government. Instead, they are controlled by alien and drug smugglers," said Andy Ramirez, head of the California-based Friends of the Border Patrol. "Our mission is to provide a safe living environment for our local citizens until the U.S. government provides the security for which it is responsible."
More than 200 civilian volunteers, including former Border Patrol agents, retired police officers, military personnel and pilots, initially will participate in the patrols, building to as many as 3,000 as the vigil continues. They are expected to establish observation posts near Calexico, Calif., and at the Border Field State Park, north of Tijuana, Mexico.
The California border protest has been endorsed by the Minuteman Civil Defense Project, which plans its own patrols along the Mexican border from California to Texas in October. The Minutemen, however, will not participate with the Friends of the Border Patrol in their effort.
Mr. Ramirez said the California volunteers want to call attention to the "real plight of those who live along the border who are being overrun by illegal aliens and drug smugglers."
The pending patrols are not without controversy, as several civic and community groups have condemned the volunteers. Numerous immigration-reform organizations and others also plan to picket the volunteers. The Calexico City Council voted unanimously last week to condemn the presence of civilian volunteers in their city.
Some groups have accused the volunteers of being racists -- a charge Mr. Ramirez denied.
Border Patrol Agent Chris Bauder, who serves as president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents San Diego-area agents, said the volunteers would "just push [the illegal alien] traffic to other areas of the border."
"Everybody is talking about controlling the border, but you can't control the border until you control the source of the problem, and the source is the employment issue," Mr. Bauder said.
Mr. Ramirez said his organization has been operational since July, when it began background investigations and a series of training sessions.
"For those who may stand in opposition to our border watch, they need to realize that this is about America and putting the most important special-interest group of all in our top priority and that is supporting and defending the American people," he said.
"Both parties know that the Southwestern U.S.-Mexican border is a mess," he said. "Citizens volunteering to defend our nation in time of war and crisis is a time-honored American tradition."


Reforming FEMA
Sep 15, 2005, 01:50
Even before the staggering problems in bringing relief to New Orleans were exposed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was one of Washington's favorite whipping boys and perennial target of political scorn and derision.
With a payroll of 2,500 federal workers and an annual budget of $664 million, FEMA isn't a giant on Washington's political scene. But the little agency has earned a notorious reputation for its fearsome red tape and slow reaction to disasters when lives are in danger. Its employees have been ridiculed as incompetents.
FEMA can work.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., says he was pleased by the initial response by FEMA to the four hurricanes that hit his state last year. He recalled that the response worked well because Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared early evacuations, vehicles that might be needed for rescues were pre-positioned with local police ready to go into operation and plans were made to combat looting. "The pre-planning was extraordinary," he said.
But that initial success weathering the storm was overshadowed by how disastrously FEMA handled the post-hurricane recovery, Foley said. He is still infuriated at how the agency funneled $30 million to Miami-Dade County, which wasn't impacted by the hurricane winds, while FEMA refused to pay for debris removal in the hardest-hit counties.
There were other problems, too, involving questionable hiring practices of FEMA-financed contractors, who employed people with criminal records as damage inspectors, and payments made for 300 funerals, when the death toll from the storm was 125.
The congressman said he's never gotten an explanation for how these problems happened. "It was the most frustrating thing," Foley said. "They wouldn't accept any level of scrutiny or examination whatsoever."
Foley recalled that he and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, confronted then-FEMA director Michael Brown, who insisted that "none of it is true." Foley said they pointed to Florida newspaper reports about the problems and noted the stories seemed true, but Brown insisted they weren't accurate. "It was the most bizarre feeling," Foley said.
After Katrina, FEMA needs to be streamlined and refocused and made independent of the Department of Homeland Security, Foley said. He wants someone to run the agency like the no-nonsense Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of active-duty troops in relief efforts in New Orleans. "We need someone who says 'Forget the rule book, get the people,' " he said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is just as exasperated with FEMA's record during last year's Florida efforts to funnel relief to hard-hit areas. "It was not because they did not have enough money. We appropriated $13.5 billion _ that is with a 'b' _ for hurricane relief," he recalled.
Nelson is furious that FEMA hired damage inspectors who took advantage of their position to buy storm-destroyed homes at rock-bottom prices, then turned around and sold them in Florida's real estate boom. He said it's common sense that FEMA prohibit inspectors from getting rich from other people's misery, but it took legislation this year to prohibit the practice.
Other reforms for FEMA are in the works.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is a longtime supporter of FEMA who headed a task force that revamped the agency in 1992.
She said she also supported efforts that made FEMA part of the new Department of Homeland Security when the federal agency was created in 2002. After 9/11, it made sense to put agencies responsible for dealing with disasters in one place, but she now says that didn't work.
She said it only meant FEMA "lost its focus, it lost its way, and it definitely lost its leadership." Mikulski said she is putting together legislation that would make FEMA independent of Homeland Security.
Many critics say the problems with FEMA are deeper than reshuffling Washington's bureaucratic structures, and some suggest turning FEMA's responsibilities over to a new disaster-relief unit run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
FEMA's problems are well known. Since 1999, what is now called the Government Accountability Office has issued 120 reports on problems with FEMA and federal disaster relief programs. They range from uncoordinated spending of $10.5 billion in assistance for "first responders" that FEMA gave state and local governments from 2002 to 2005, to the recurring problem of government agencies failing to communicate with one another _ a critical issue highlighted in the response to 9/11.
Even the withering criticism isn't new.
"The sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever worked with," complained then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., after the agency waited 10 days to open an office in Charleston, S.C., to handle disaster claims after Hurricane Hugo hit the city in 1989. FEMA "could screw up a two-car parade," said then-Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., after the agency bungled relief efforts for 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake. Mineta is now the U.S. secretary of transportation.
Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, said the government can fix one flaw by no longer using FEMA as a dumping ground for political cronies. The appointment of Brown as head of FEMA, despite his lack of experience in disaster management, isn't without precedent, Basham said. "(President Bill) Clinton did the same thing," he said.
Basham said a more central problem is that FEMA is spread too thin, responsible not only for coordinating relief from hurricanes, but also after 9/11 for helping recover cities hit by terrorists, or devastated by earthquakes, tornados or fires. During the Cold War, about half of FEMA's budget went to so-called "Continuity of Government" programs involved in relocating and operating the government from underground cities in the wake of a Soviet nuclear attack. Interest in the program subsided after the Cold War ended, but was revived after 9/11 and once again put under FEMA control.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is in favor of dissolving FEMA, but Basham said he doesn't think that is politically possible. He said the political winds in Washington today favor pouring more money into FEMA in hopes that will make it work, rather than making the agency more efficient and eliminating red tape.
"It's the nature of governments and bureaucracies to grow," he said. "The problem is we've allowed the federal government to evolve to the point where it is inherently incapable of responding."


Our Veterans Deserve A Well Funded Health Care System
by Congressman Benjamin L. Cardin (D-3, Md.)
Sept. 13, 2005--We promised our military personnel that we would take care of their health care needs when they signed up to defend and protect our nation. We have not kept that promise. In the last two years, the Administration has asked for less funding than is needed to adequately fund the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system.
In July, the Administration finally acknowledged more than a $1 billion shortfall in its veterans’ health care funding request for this year. Congress has enacted legislation to deal with the FY2005 shortfall, but the Administration has failed to address the $3 billion shortfall in the veterans’ health care budget for FY2006.
In 1996, Congress passed the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act, expanding VA eligibility. Since 1999, enrollment in the VA health care system has increased from 4.3 million to approximately 7.4 million in 2004. However, funding for the VA has not kept pace with need.
The Administration’s solution to this shortfall is to pass on health care costs to veterans through co-payments and new fees. They also have limited treatment to certain classifications of veterans.
The VA health care system is organized into priority groups 1 through 8. In Central Maryland, Priority 7 veterans are classified as those whose injuries are not service related and whose income is below $38,400 ($43,900 with a dependent). Priority 8 veterans are those whose injuries are not service related and whose income is higher than Priority 7 veterans.
Currently, the VA will not allow any new enrollment of Priority Group 8 veterans in the health care system, affecting some 6,500 veterans in Maryland. In the FY2006 VA health care budget, the Administration also has proposed increasing health care costs for 2.2 million veterans by charging Priority 7 and Priority 8 veterans an annual enrollment fee of $250 and increasing prescription drug co-payments from $7 to $15. In Maryland, the VA health care system provides care to approximately 122,000 veterans.
A report prepared by the Committee on Government Reform minority staff recently estimated that a new $250 enrollment fee could result in approximately 17,000 Maryland veterans dropping out of the VA health care system. The report also estimates that Maryland veterans would face average cost increases of $390 annually if they remain in the VA system.
I have co-sponsored two important bills to reverse the Administration’s proposals. The New GI Bill of Right for the 21st Century, HR 2131, would block increases in prescription drug co-payments and enrollment fees, and the Honor Our Commitment to Veterans Act, HR 3312, would end the freeze on new enrollment of Priority 8 veterans in the VA health care system.
I do not support any budget that seeks to reduce our federal budget deficit by increasing health care costs for our veterans. I also am extremely troubled that the Administration’s request for medical and prosthetic research has declined $12 million since FY 2004, just as more military personnel are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with injuries that require such expertise.
We need a long-term solution to the health care funding crisis that continues to plague the VA. The solution must take into account the true needs of the VA health care system so that it can provide our veterans with the care they deserve.

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