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News Briefs: May 13, 2013

May. 12, 2013 - 01:59PM   |  
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Army launches $7 billion renewable energy contract

Five companies have prequalified to build and maintain geothermal energy projects for the Defense Department, under the first phase of a $7 billion Army contract.

The contract will make it easier and faster for DoD installations to enter into so-called “power purchase agreements” — under which companies pay for and maintain renewable energy projects in exchange for set energy payments over time — by allowing installations to choose from companies prequalified and vetted by the Army and Army Corps of Engineers.

The companies are:

Constellation NewEnergy Inc.

ECC Renewables LLC.

Enel Green Power North America Inc.

LTC Federal LLC.

Siemens Government Technologies Inc.

The Army Corps of Engineers — in partnership with the Army Energy Initiatives Task Force — announced the geothermal portion of the contact in a May 3 news release. The next rounds will focus on solar, wind and biomass energy projects and will be finalized throughout 2013, according to the Army.

“In our current fiscal environment, attracting third-party money to build renewable energy production facilities that will allow military installations to purchase energy at a pre-determined rate without building, owning and maintaining the facility is the right thing to do,” Col. Robert Ruch, commander for the Army Corps of Engineers center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a news release.

In April 2012 the Defense Department pledged to produce 3 gigawatts of renewable energy — 1 gigawatt each from the Army, Navy and Air Force — on its installations by fiscal 2025. Three gigawatts is enough energy to power about 750,000 homes.

John Lushetsky, executive director of the Energy Initiatives Task Force, which was created to help expedite renewable energy projects at the Army, said the new contract is a streamlined tool for DoD to procure large-scale renewable energy projects and help them meet their renewable energy goals.

“To reach the Army’s goal of deploying 1 gigawatt of renewable energy by 2025 will require a different way of doing business with the private sector,” he said in a news release.

Sequester changes rules on DoD contractor background reinvestigations

Citing sequester and budget challenges, the arm of the Defense Department overseeing security clearances for contractors is cutting how much time people have to request so-called periodic reinvestigations.

Known as PRIs, periodic reinvestigations are updated background checks to ensure people with security clearances are still fit to hold them.

The Defense Security Service says it will now accept PRI requests from industry only 30 days before the anniversary of a person’s clearance investigation anniversary date. Previously, people had 90 days to submit a request.

The decision essentially defers costs of some investigations until next fiscal year. Under the previous 90-day window, a person who needs a PRI by Nov. 1 could submit a request as early as July, meaning DSS would incur the cost this fiscal year for a PRI not due until next fiscal year. Under the new 30-day limitation, that’s no longer possible; the request would not be accepted until Oct. 1 — the beginning of fiscal 2014.

DSS had no budget figures immediately available on how much the move would save.

OPM handles the vast majority of such clearance checks for the Defense Department. DSS incurs a cost each time it requests OPM conduct a PRI.

In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office found the base price for a top secret clearance investigation conducted by OPM was $4,005 and the PRI was $2,711. Overall, DSS expects to receive about 65,000 requests this year, according to a DSS spokeswoman.

“We’re still going to process all the requests we get and we’re not going to hold any back,” DSS spokeswoman Cindy McGovern said. “We have to manage our resources; we have look at when we’re obligating the funds.”

Senator: Free up access to SSA database to head off payments to dead

The Social Security Administration should stop charging other agencies for access to its death records database because it is a key tool in heading off government payments to the deceased, a senator said Wednesday.

The information is intended “to keep money from going out the door that shouldn’t be going out the door,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said at a hearing on improper payments. “We should be falling all over ourselves — no matter what part of government we are — to make sure this list is everywhere.”

The database, formally known as the Death Master File, is used by SSA officials to prevent Social Security benefit payments to dead people. Last year alone, the agency received about 7 million death reports from family members, funeral home directors and other sources, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But by law, the agency has to be reimbursed when providing the data to other agencies unless it’s getting something in return, Marianna LaCanfora, acting deputy Social Security commissioner for retirement and disability policy, said at the hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Defense Department, for example, pays more than $40,000 annually for monthly updates, while the Office of Personnel Management is charged nothing because it provides other information to SSA, Daniel Bertoni of GAO said in prepared testimony.

Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget, told McCaskill he isn’t familiar with the specifics of the reimbursement issue, but agreed with the principle that agencies should have “a logical approach” in dealing with each other.

Overall, government payments to the dead make up a tiny fraction of total benefit spending. But they garner a disproportionate amount of attention from the media and politicians. In a 2010 report titled “Federal Programs to Die For,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., found that the Agriculture Department had over time spent $1.1 billion on subsidies for dead farmers while Medicare had paid $92 million for medical supplies prescribed by dead doctors.

Despite reducing the overall improper payment rate since then, the government has “done little” to address the problem of payments to dead people, Coburn, now the committee’s top Republican, said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Leaders fear sequester's impact on recruitment, retention, service

The constant drumbeat of bad news and poor morale in the government is hurting recruitment and retention of mid- and upper-level employees at the General Services Administration, acting administrator Dan Tangherlini said Monday.

“We still have many, many more people who want to come work for us than we have [entry-level] opportunities,” Tangherlini said at a Public Service Recognition Week town hall sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. “It’s really in midlevel retention, and mid- and upper-level recruitment, where we have people saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to make those sacrifices.’ ”

Tangherlini said those recruitment challenges will make it difficult for his agency to renew and revitalize its leadership ranks.

“We need to make sure we keep those people going through, and continue to grow and have the opportunity to get experience,” Tangherlini said.

The challenges posed by the sequester’s budget cuts and ongoing bad news for federal employees — everything from furloughs to pay freezes to criticism that they are paid too much and do too little work — were discussed by panel members Tangherlini, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

Perciasepe agreed that recruitment is challenging in the current environment, even though EPA has an active effort to try to attract talented graduates.

“All the [government morale survey] numbers are going down a bit,” Perciasepe said. “We think that’s from the constant drumbeat that there’s something wrong with public service. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Napolitano said the sequester is the worst way to cut the budget, and she fears how it will affect DHS as the summer travel season approaches. She hopes her agency won’t have to furlough Customs and Border Protection officers, which would delay travelers entering the United States. But she said budget cuts won’t leave DHS as much flexibility to “surge” overtime for CBP and Transportation Security Administration officers to handle increases in travelers.

Donovan said the sequester will have many negative effects that aren’t as public as the recent furlough of air traffic controllers that delayed flights across the country, and spurred Congress to take quick action to avert those furloughs. For example, he said, HUD’s sequester will likely force 200,000 families out of homeless shelters.

“You couldn’t design a worse way to reduce costs” than the sequester, he said.

Perciasepe said processing of permits and inspections across the government have slowed due to the sequester. But he said federal employees are meeting that challenge.

“No matter how much chaos this throws into our normal order, public servants are rising to the occasion, even when their pay is being cut, to make sure some minimal amount of work is getting done,” Perciasepe said. “I think that’s one of the more remarkable stories.”

Donovan and Napolitano said they try to regularly visit employees in the field and listen to their problems as part of an effort to keep morale up.

And Tangherlini said he tries to emphasize to GSA employees how important the work they do is.

“It’s an honor,” Tangherlini said. “It’s something that is incredibly motivating in and of itself. If you listen to the very negative rhetoric, you can begin to believe it or internalize it, or become a little more shy about saying that you are actually committing yourself to something bigger than yourself. You’re committing yourself to something as important as your nation. I think people need to be reminded of that from time to time.”

TSA officers, air marshals file legal warning over knives

Nine groups of airline workers and travelers filed a legal challenge Monday urging the Transportation Security Administration against allowing passengers to carry small knives on planes.

The groups, including representatives for TSA officers and air marshals, filed a legal petition with TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to prevent any return of knives into plane cabins. The groups warned they could potentially challenge the policy in court.

The move is the latest skirmish over TSA Administrator John Pistole’s proposal to allow knives with blades up to 2.36 inches long, along with hockey and lacrosse sticks and golf clubs. The items have been banned since the hijackings Sept. 11, 2001.

Pistole announced March 5 that he would allow small knives and sporting equipment in plane cabins on April 25.

Pistole defended the policy change at a congressional hearing, where he said knitting needles and scissors were allowed back in cabins in 2005. He said baggage screeners would better search for explosives that could bring down a plane if they weren’t worried about small knives.

But TSA temporarily postponed the policy change April 22, for Pistole to get more input from the industry and law enforcement about which items should be prohibited on planes.

Airline workers and some travelers remain concerned because a summary obtained by USA Today of TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, which met April 22, says the policy change to allow small knives could be revived after 30 or 60 days.

In a two-page legal petition and a 29-page memorandum, the groups said TSA regulations prohibit anyone from having “a weapon, explosive or incendiary” in a secure part of an airport or on a plane.

“There can be no dispute, however, that allowing knives would endanger those TSA is charged with protecting,” the memo states. “The knife would also increase the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack.”

In order to change that policy, the groups of workers and travelers contend that TSA must go through a formal rule-making process, which could take months and would allow public comment.

“The TSA is simply wrong in planning to allow knives in the aircraft cabin,” said Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “My flying partners throughout the industry will be put in harm’s way again if the new rule goes into effect.”

The groups that filed the legal document are: the American Federation of Government Employees representing TSA security officers; the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, including air marshals; the consumer group; the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at 20 airlines; the Association of Professional Flight Attendants at American Airlines; the Allied Pilots Association of American pilots; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the Teamsters; and the Transport Workers Union.

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