May 19, 2017 at 5:53 PM
This post has been updated.
The Environmental Protection Agency plans to set aside $12 million for buyouts and early retirements in coming months, as part of an effort to begin "reshaping" the agency's workforce under the Trump administration.
In a memo, the EPA's acting chief financial officer, David Bloom, said the move is how the agency plans to spend part of roughly $24 million in "carry-over funds" — essentially, money that was not spent in the previous fiscal year and is rolled over to the current one.
Beyond the looming buyouts, the memo details $800,000 allocated for travel expenses for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's security detail, $1.4 million for cloud-computing services and other data storage, and $2 million for consolidating the agency's physical footprint.
"Senior leadership made decisions to allocate the carry-over funds set aside earlier this year to address agency's priorities for incentive payments for workforce reshaping, support for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance (OGC), travel for the Administrator's protective detail, rent, continued space reduction efforts, eDiscovery, agency cloud services and the OGC's workforce support," Bloom wrote.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman addressed the potential buyouts in a statement late Thursday.
"Streamlining and reorganizing is good government and important to maximizing taxpayer dollars. This includes looking at developing opportunities for individuals to retire early," she said. "It's a process that mirrors what the Obama Administration EPA did about four years ago, to ensure that payroll expenses do not overtake funds used for vital programs to protect the environment."
An advance copy of the fiscal 2018 budget proposal for the EPA, which the Trump administration is set to release next week, indicates the administration will proceed with its plans to cut the agency's budget by more than 31 percent compared to its current level. The proposal was obtained by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
The plan would include the elimination of several major regional programs, including ones aimed at restoring the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, as well as EPA's lead risk reduction program. It would cut categorical grants, which support state and local efforts to address everything from pesticide exposure to air and water quality, by nearly half to $597 million.
Bowman declined Friday to comment on the budget document's authenticity but said via email, "The budget prioritizes federal funding for work in infrastructure, air and water quality, and ensuring the safety of chemicals in the marketplace. The budget aims to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies and focus on our core statutory mission."
Last month, the EPA made clear it intended to begin offering buyouts as part of its response to an executive order by President Trump aimed at streamlining agencies throughout the federal government. Acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn wrote in a letter to regional administrators and other EPA officials that the White House had asked agencies to start taking "immediate actions" aimed at reducing their workforce.
"In light of this guidance, we will begin the steps necessary to initiate an early out/buy out … program," he wrote, adding that the goal is to complete the first buyouts by the end of September.
Flynn also noted that while a government-wide hiring freeze had been lifted, hiring at the EPA would remain at a standstill. "Given our resource situation, we will continue a freeze on external hiring," he said. "Very limited exceptions to this external hiring freeze may be permitted on a case-by-case basis."
Neither that letter nor this week's memo contained details about how much the EPA plans to shrink its workforce.
There are two main ways the agency could entice employees to leave. A buyout — also known as a "voluntary separation incentive payment," or VSIP — is a cash payment to encourage a federal worker to leave voluntarily. In most cases, the maximum payout is $25,000, which is taxable. Employees who accept a buyout must leave by a specific date and can't return to federal employment within five years unless they repay the entire, pretax buyout amount.
Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA), in federal lingo, allows federal employees to retire before they typically would qualify for full benefits. Early retirement generally allows employees under either of the federal government's main retirement systems — the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System — to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years of service.
In 2014, during the Obama administration, the EPA paid more than $11 million in incentives to compel 436 employees to voluntarily leave their jobs. It also paid accumulated annual leave payments of $4.9 million, for a total of $16.2 million, according to EPA union officials.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.