The Department of Housing and Urban Development is offering cash buyouts in four offices in an attempt to bring down its head count and comply with a congressional mandate.

Roy A. Bernardi, who has been nominated by the president to become HUD's deputy secretary, said the department will offer at least 115 buyouts, worth $25,000, to employees in the four offices. Overall, he said, the department needs to reduce its workforce by 162 employees in order to get down to 9,177 employees -- the ceiling on HUD employment set by Congress two years ago.

The application window for the buyouts starts today and closes May 28, Bernardi said. Employees also will be offered early retirement options, he said.

HUD's buyout plan, however, has run into objections from the American Federation of Government Employees Council 222, which filed a formal demand to negotiate over how it is implemented. Union President Carolyn Federoff said she is concerned that the buyouts are being restricted to certain positions and said she wants to see the workforce data behind the department's plan.

A HUD spokesman said the department plans to go ahead with the buyouts but will work with the union to resolve concerns.

The four HUD offices asked to pare back their staffing are the Office of Community Planning and Development, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the Office of Departmental Operations and Coordination, and the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control.

In addition to using buyouts, HUD hopes that normal turnover will leave an additional 50 jobs vacant and help the department shrink staffing. If not, HUD may increase the number of buyouts beyond 115, Bernardi said.

HUD officials do not expect any problems in hitting the targets, in part because about 600 employees in the offices are eligible for early and regular retirement.

The downsizing plan caused some concern inside HUD at the start because of the possibility that some employees would be handed involuntary reassignments. But Bernardi said the department has worked with appropriations subcommittees and averted the need for large-scale reassignments.

"The good news here is, if there are going to be any reassignments, they will be minimal at best," he said. Employees also will not face furloughs, in which they would lose pay, he said.

Bernardi serves as the assistant secretary for community planning and development and chairs HUD's "corrective action plan initiative," which addresses staffing and other issues.

According to department officials, HUD hired too many people in some offices in 2002. HUD staffing levels have dropped during the past five years, prompting some concern at the Office of Management and Budget that the department relies on too many contract workers.

Under the buyout proposal, employees' payments will be equal to their severance pay or $25,000, whichever is less, and will be taxable.

Employees approved for buyouts at HUD must be off the payroll by July 24, officials said.

Most agencies are trying to hold the line on staffing, but forecasts of tight budgets in fiscal 2005 and 2006 may lead to an increase in buyouts.

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is coping with a $20 million budget cut this year, 82 employees have applied for buyouts.

The deadline for volunteering to take a buyout was May 7, and most of those who applied also are eligible for early retirement, NIST spokesman Michael E. Newman said.

NIST plans to abolish about 100 jobs before Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

The agency is trying to place the 100 or so employees targeted for layoffs in other jobs or at other federal agencies.

Newman said the agency will not know for several more weeks whether the buyouts will match up with the job eliminations and help reduce the number of people who must be laid off because of the budget cut.

Diary Live Today

Christopher Lee, a Washington Post staff writer, and Hal Straus, database and special projects editor for washingtonpost.com, will take questions and comments on the proliferation of bonuses and time-off awards in the government at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

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