Budget Shortfall Forces Capitol Police Cutbacks

Posted March 24, 2010 at 6:08pm

In an effort to recoup the $5.5 million shortfall in their budget, Capitol Police officials may delay replacing equipment and training officers.

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse discovered the shortfall last month and quickly attributed it to a miscalculation of such factors as holiday pay and retirement rates. Since then, police officials have scrambled to find areas in the department’s $328 million budget to make up the difference.

On Wednesday, police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said officials have identified several areas where a funding decrease won’t affect officer salaries or Capitol security. They include delaying replacements for older equipment, canceling some external training and delaying the purchase of new technology. They also expect to capitalize on a low attrition rate that allows them to delay hiring new officers and thus save money on uniforms, training and equipment. Police officials, she said, plan to ask Congress for the authority to reprogram such funds later this fiscal year.

Such cuts will “result in greater fiscal needs in future years, but it will not affect the security on the Capitol Complex,” she said in an e-mail. “Further, while it will also hamper the Department’s ability to invest in professional and technical training for its workforce, the Department will continue to provide mission critical mandatory and certification training.”

The shortfall has caused Members to question whether the department is able to handle its own finances or whether that authority should be returned to Congress. House appropriators attempted to get to the bottom of the situation at a hearing Wednesday, questioning Morse on everything from internal controls to an upcoming report from the department’s inspector general.

The shortfall — which was discovered in the department’s salary account — appeared to be the last straw for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who has watched the department struggle with its administrative arm since she became chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch in 2007.

“I’m incredibly disappointed — it’s hard to overstate my disappointment — in the fact that the Capitol Police has not been able to get a handle on fiscal management,” she said, later adding: “I’ve lost confidence in the Capitol Police’s ability going forward to handle this without assistance and without backup.”

Wasserman Schultz presented Morse with two possible options: return the department’s budget authority to Congress or give the Government Accountability Office a larger role in fiscal tasks. But while Morse said he was open to outside help, he also urged lawmakers to wait to make such changes until the department has pinpointed the problem.

The department’s inspector general is now in the middle of interviewing more than 15 employees and analyzing relevant documents. The final report won’t be available until early June.

“I think the inspector general’s audit is going to really help us and tell us where to go in terms of those options,” Morse said.

Morse discovered the $5.5 million shortfall in February during his first-quarter review. But the error wasn’t confined to this year’s budget; officials made the same mistake on their fiscal 2011 request and subsequently had to raise that by $9 million.

Members expressed concern Wednesday that the problem pointed to more systematic issues in the Capitol Police’s administrative arm. Gloria Jarmon, the department’s chief administrative officer, conceded that officials still haven’t solved “material weaknesses” in the department’s fiscal and information systems. But she declined to promise fixes in six months, citing long-standing problems that take time to abate.

It was an answer that displeased Wasserman Schultz, who replied that the response “leaves me less than confident.”

Subcommittee ranking member Robert Aderholt (Ala.) echoed Wasserman Schultz’s concerns on the “seriousness of mismanagement.” But the committee’s conversation also turned to other problems within the department.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) questioned the unevenness of the Capitol’s security policy. While the department’s official policy is to require staffers to always go through a metal detector, many officers wave them through if they are accompanying a Member. And some places in the Capitol complex don’t seem to have much security at all, she said.

“I do bring my staff through the metal detectors,” she said, adding that her chief of staff always complies. “But if he had driven into the Rayburn building, he would have gone through nothing.”

McCollum did not ask Morse to detail the problem — ostensibly because of security issues — but she pushed for an overall look at such security holes.

“This is something that we need to talk up,” she said. “We need to figure this out because it’s not fair to the officers.