MSPB, OSC already feeling brunt of budget reductions

Wednesday - 3/21/2012, 6:00am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Two small agencies with outsized responsibilities toward the federal workforce say they've trimmed all the fat from their budgets. The Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Special Counsel told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that they'll need more resources to keep up with their increasing caseloads.

While the MSPB averages 98 days to resolve a personnel case that a federal employee might bring against their employer, Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann said she expected it to take more time to close a case by the end of this year.

"The numbers for the first part of the fiscal year are already demonstrating that the initial decisions in the regional and field offices are starting to slow down," she said.

Nearly half of the agency's administrative judges are eligible to retire. It takes more than two years to hire and train replacements who can handle full caseloads. The board may face a situation in which so many judges have retired that the remaining ones cannot train and mentor the new judges coming in.

"Despite our best efforts to cut operating costs, we are still forced to delay or freeze hiring each year," she said. "As of today, we have more than 18 critical vacancies that we are not able to fill this year."

OSC cutting costs

The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates and prosecutes cases before the board, is relying on interns for key projects and has told its attorneys to listen to tapes of hearings rather than pay for transcripts.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said a projected budget cut of $280,000 would shrink her staff from 110 to 107 people.

"It's a big problem," she said. "A lot of our budget — 89 percent — is devoted to salaries, benefits and rent so there isn't really extra room in there to cut back."

While the agencies grapple with the same fiscal pressures felt throughout the government, their workloads are growing. The Office of Special Counsel resolved 20 percent more cases in 2011 than in the two previous years. It expects an increase of up to 8 percent this year, in part due to veterans seeking help with their benefits.

The cases coming before the Merit Systems Protection Board rose to 8,100 last year from 7,800 in 2010. Grundmann said the Board expected to see more cases over retirement benefits, veterans' rights and furloughs or reductions-in-force in the coming years.

MSPB has promised staff that "no one goes home and we keep the lights on," Grundmann said. But it is relying more and more on technology to help it cut costs. It has cut travel and told staff to use video conferencing instead.

"It's not really doing more with less. It's being smarter with what you have," she said. "We're at the point now that if we cut any more, people are going home."

OSC could not afford to pay more rent so it has converted its library into extra office space. It has also switched computerized legal research providers to save about $50,000 a year.

That's small potatoes at most agencies, but "in an agency of this size, these modest changes make a difference," Lerner said.

Discussions ongoing with appropriators

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) called the leaders of the two agencies to testify in a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. Akaka has promoted the Office of Special Counsel's mission to protect employees, particularly whistleblowers, through two bills. The first would expand whistleblower protections to auditors and safety inspectors. The second would loosen the Hatch Act that forbids public employees from political involvement.

Grundmann said lawmakers on the appropriations committee also understood the board's financial needs.

"Conversations are ongoing," she said. "We've been fortunate so far. We have to keep our fingers crossed as to what's coming."

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