DHS holds fast to St. Elizabeths HQ plan

Friday - 9/23/2011, 5:38pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Funding gaps and construction delays aren't swaying the Homeland Security Department from its goal of consolidating most of its Washington-based facilities on the campus of the former St. Elizabeth's hospital.

"The reduction in the funding stream has impacted our original plans," said DHS chief administrative officer Don Bathurst. Speaking of the future steps in the project, he said, "We're going to try to bring those on as quickly as fiscally allowable."

DHS's various Washington-area headquarters are spread throughout 50 buildings. Congress has criticized the agency for its lack of integration.

"Bringing the component operation centers together in the DHS operations center will resolve deficiencies in operational management, which was noted in various lessons learned reports and Government Accountability Office reports after Hurricane Katrina," Bathurst said during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Coast Guard vice admiral John Currier and General Services Administration Public Buildings Service commissioner Robert Peck also testified. The Coast Guard is the first division of DHS scheduled to move into the facility.

Congress has been increasingly reluctant to continuing paying for the $3.6 billion, seven-year project. A lack of full funding this year has led to construction delays and an estimated $30 million in adjustments, Peck said.

DHS requested $160 million for the fiscal 2012 for the St. Elizabeth's project. The Senate appropriations bill includes about a third of that money. The House version would not fund it at all.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the press earlier this month that she would not sacrifice frontline workers' needs to make up the shortfall.

Those comments should not be read as a lack of commitment to the St. Elizabeth's project, the panel told lawmakers.

"We're quite enthusiastic," Currier said. "We see this move as beneficial to our operational efficiency and habitability concerns for our people."

Lawmakers questioned whether the estimated 42 percent jump in rent would justify the move from the Coast Guard's current space to St. Elizabeth's.

"I'm not trying to be evasive, but we'd be getting more for our money," at St. Elizabeth's, he said, adding that the new campus would have better security, IT infrastructure and childcare facilities.

The Coast Guard currently rents two buildings in Washington for its headquarters staff. They sit in a 100-year flood plain.

"We had near-catastrophic flooding a few years back. We discovered the building's critical infrastructure, including generators, power lines and computer lines, were in the sub-basement and flooded and rendered the headquarters inoperative for quite a period of time," said Currier.

Neither DHS nor GSA could tell the subcommittee exactly how much money they would need for the next stage of the project because, they said, they were revising that figure. They said it would be included in President Barack Obama's budget proposal expected in February for 2013.

Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) asked for a status report in December.

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