DHS struggles to balance mission costs with new facilities

Thursday - 3/22/2012, 5:28am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The Homeland Security Department faces a quandary: How can the agency build new and much-needed facilities without having to take money from mission-critical operations?

Officials are trying to avoid the idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It's that question that spurred DHS into looking for help from House lawmakers Wednesday.

The issue is clear: DHS doesn't have enough money to move to phase two of the construction plan for its new headquarters on the St. Elizabeths campus in Washington, D.C., nor does it have the funding to pay for a new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) on the campus of Kansas State University that would meet the requirements for the highest level of biosafety.

Tara O'Toole, under secretary for the Science and Technology, DHS (DHS photo)

Both projects would require officials to take more away from mission-critical programs to pay for the facilities, putting DHS in a catch-22 situation. Without the new facilities, critical-mission operations would be affected. By paying for new facilities, money must be taken from mission-critical accounts.

"Severe cuts to the S&T budget in recent years makes it impossible to fund NBAF construction out of the S&T operating budget," said Tara O'Toole, the under secretary for the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS, Wednesday during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security hearing. "Our FY 2012 appropriations for discretionary research and development was 56 percent less than what it was in 2010, so we are potentially faced with the Hobbesian Choice of constructing a needed new laboratory that the country requires or pursuing essential R&D for the DHS missions."

DHS' funding challenges are common among R&D agencies

O'Toole said DHS' S&T Directorate isn't alone in having to choose. She said all civilian R&D organizations face the challenge of balancing operations with infrastructure.

"One cannot conduct first rate research and development without modern labs and equipment," she said. "But a fully capable lab that lacks the money to do research is not much use either."

Rafael Borras, the under secretary for management at DHS, is comparing the now almost $4 billion construction cost of consolidating the agency at St. Elizabeths with the mission needs to protect the borders, harden agency computer networks and a host of other critical needs across the department.

The plan for the short term is for DHS to pay for infrastructure improvements to connecting roadways and to pay to finish the Coast Guard's new headquarters on the campus. In all, DHS plans to spend $1.7 billion.

But in the long term, DHS and the General Services Administration, which acts as the government's landlord, would have to wait and see how much, if any, Congress approves for the project in 2013 and beyond.

In 2013, the White House didn't request any funding for St. Elizabeths beyond what is needed to finish the Coast Guard facility and road improvements. GSA also didn't receive any funding from Congress in 2012 for the construction effort.

Segment approach for headquarters

Borras said the new approach DHS is taking for St. Elizabeths would require an extra five years and another $600 million.

"What we are doing now is looking at the future development of that campus in much more, what I could call, reasonable or segmentable projects," he said. "The most unfriendly part to a construction project is time. The loss of time is the greatest factor of the increase of the cost of the project. But breaking the project into small segments of approximately $300 million of each segment is what is driving that time and cost increase."

Rafael Borras, under secretary for management, DHS (DHS photo)

Borras said adopting this approach, DHS would move 14,500 employees into its new headquarters by 2022.

In the meantime, DHS is trying to figure out how to save money through things such as telework, flexible or alternative work schedules and consolidating leases.

Borras said as a rough estimate, he could see St. Elizabeths being able to accommodate 17,000 people through the use of hotelling and telework, meaning all 17,000 would not be on campus at one time, although that is how many people could be stationed there.

Should Congress come through with funding for 2014 and beyond, Borras said DHS already knows which offices would move to the campus next.

"The next usable segment we will be proposing in FY 2014, which is to move headquarters, to populate the center building, which will move about another 400 to 500 people on to the campus," he said. "That's the secretary, that's all the secretarial support. We think that makes a tremendous statement of the commitment that this department is making at St. Elizabeths."

Additionally, Borras said the transportation security operations center, the FEMA operations center and the national operations center would move the St. Elizabeths with proper funding.

Employees could occupy the facilities under Phase 2 by 2017 if funding comes through.

Two studies will help show the way

As for the bio and agro defense facility, O'Toole said DHS is holding back about $190 million until two reviews by DHS, outside experts and the National Academy of Sciences determine the next steps. One of the reviews is looking at the risks of animal disease and agro terrorism. The other would help decide what the government really needs in a facility or if the current facility on Plum Island, N.Y., could be made to work. O'Toole said both reports are expected to be done by June.

O'Toole said one solution to the research versus facility challenge is what the National Science Foundation set up — two separate budgets, one for research and one for capital investments so it can stop cannibalizing its research funding.

Lawmakers, for their part, understand DHS' predicament.

"Today the bottom line is that Under Secretary Borras and Under Secretary O'Toole know we have limited funds, and if they could come to us with a budget that reflects that and says the funding is not what we thought it was originally going to be when we first envisioned these two facilities, what we would like to do is get a reasonable budget to say based on having less money than we originally thought of, this is what we would foresee we would do," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, (R-Ala.), chairman of the subcommittee.

Aderholt added he would like more details about DHS' plans to develop new office space in segments of $300 million. But the administration's lack of budget requests also makes things more difficult.

Aderholt said the consolidation of DHS' headquarters is one of the subcommittee's major priorities, especially as many of the office leases for DHS components come up for renewal in 2016.

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