Rio Grande Guardian
September 23, 2008
BROWNSVILLE, September 23 - The chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security wants the Inspector General to begin an immediate audit of the Department of Homeland Security’s contracts and task orders for the border fence.
U.S. Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, made clear his displeasure over the way DHS is handling the border fence project in a letter sent Friday to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Price voted against the Secure Fence Act.
Price's letter confirmed that DHS can have the additional $378 million it needs to build the remainder of the 670 miles of border fencing. So far, only 344 miles of fencing have been erected.
“I am also copying the Inspector General on this letter and requesting that he immediately begin to audit contracts and task orders associated with site acquisition and construction related to pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers to ensure that the government’s fiduciary responsibilities are carried out,” Price wrote, in his letter to Chertoff.
Price said U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, concurs with the recommendations made in the letter.
In his letter, Price said he does not want DHS having its border fence funds tied up in long term contracts in case delays exist well into fiscal year 2009. “I strongly urge you to consider applying the reprogrammed funds for fencing or barriers only to contracts and task orders of a limited duration, with expiration dates not later than February 2009,” Price wrote.
CBP has told Price’s committee that it plans to obligate funding for most remaining tactical infrastructure projects and complete them before Jan. 31, 2009. “If construction is significantly delayed by litigation or other unforeseen problems, a shorter contract period would help CBP more quickly recover and reapply these funds to high priority technology solutions, rather than let them site unused in long-term contracts,” Price wrote.
DHS Undersecretary Elaine Duke had requested $378,000 from Congress to offset unanticipated cost increases for fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The funds should come, Duke said, from a combination of reprogramming, transfers, redirection, and reallocations.
Price responded that the magnitude of the cost growth underlying Duke’s request was “surprising.” The increase in anticipated costs is up 87 percent for pedestrian fencing and 40 percent for vehicle barriers. Price said this was “surprising” because Customs and Border Protection stockpiled steel and other materials in advance.
“It is also surprising that his cost increase seems to have had no impact on the Department’s assessment of the costs and benefits of tactical infrastructure, compared to other means of attaining effective border control,” Price wrote, in his letter to Chertoff.
“It is also alarming that the request would shift technology improvements to the border into 2009 or 2010, although we understand qualification testing of those systems is underway and the Department planned to move ahead soon thereafter with initial deployment.”
Price said that while delays in constructing 670 miles of fencing are in part due to increased costs, they are also a consequence of predictable environmental, flood control and litigation considerations.
Price also said he has “misgivings” about the proposed offsets DHS plans to make, in order to spend more money on the border fence project. The $35 million reduction in Border Patrol spending is “contrary to the bipartisan priority” the Homeland Security subcommittee has placed on manned presence on the border, Price said.
“While CBP says it will achieve its 2008 hiring targets for agents, I am discouraged to learn that most of these ‘savings’ are dud to CBP failure to fill almost 900 support positions required by Border Patrol, Price said. “I direct CBP to intensify its efforts to fill these positions, and expect an accounting of those efforts in the regular hiring briefings provided to the Committee.”
Price said he was “alarmed” that DHS proposed to use $20 million for the southern border fence that was supposed to be used in fiscal year 2007 for the northern border technology project.
“This initiative was specifically funded and directed by this Committee and Congress two years ago, in recognition that the northern border represents a massive vulnerability,” Price wrote. “Given the delay in implementing the project – and the fact that virtually all the $2.7 billion appropriated to BSFIT have gone on the southwest border efforts – the proposal to reprogram these funds is ill-advised.”
Price said that while his subcommittee will not stand in the way of DHS’s efforts to construct the border fence, he has a “serious doubt” about the agency’s ability to accomplish its stated goals. Price denied the proposed use of $20 million for the northern border project but supported a DHS alternative to use $15 million in funding from other sources that would likely lapse if not reprogrammed.
Price also called on Chertoff to direct CBP and Border Patrol to revisit border areas that remain in dispute with local communities, landowners and local government officials. He said he wants an improvement in the “hands-on consultation process” and an assessment of how a border security system can best be designed to meet national, local and regional priorities.
“I understand that the Border Patrol has been engaged in discussions with the Texas Border Coalition to directly review the environmental and other concerns about fencing plans on the border by literally “walking the line” in Cameron, Hidalgo, El Paso and Starr counties,” Price wrote. “Such collaboration would help ensure that border infrastructure is designed in a way to be more secure and cost effective, and I expect you to undertake it.”