Union blasts Weather Service hiring freeze on budget surplus
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Union officials say the National Weather Service had enough money to avoid a "dangerous" hiring freeze last year, while the agency asserts the funds in question are meant to be spent over several years.
The Weather Service suffers from severe staff shortages, which prompted a panel convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May 2013 to warn that the vacancies make weather forecasting offices "vulnerable to failure during significant weather events" (Greenwire, May 22, 2013). At last count, the agency had 451 unfilled positions, or about 9 percent of the workforce that was in place in 2010, according to the NWS Employees Organization.
But NWS ended fiscal 2013 with $125 million still on hand, which the union argues could have been used to fill much-needed positions.
All of that money is multiyear funding, meaning it also can be spent this year. Many agencies have held back money because of budget uncertainty, waiting to spend it until they were assured that lawmakers would come to a deal and pass appropriations bills.
NOAA, the parent agency to NWS, says the funds are not surplus. An official said the agency generally spends about 95 percent of such multiyear funds in the first year, reserving the rest for the second year.
According to a budget document released by the union, NWS spent about 93 percent of its allotment for the Operations, Research and Facilities account and 53 percent of its Procurement, Acquisition and Construction funds. For the latter account, the funds are available longer, through fiscal 2015.
"Our budget process is open and transparent, and we're continuing to communicate, within the agency and out, how and when these dedicated funds will be spent," the official said.
All but $10 million of the funds are in accounts that do not pay salaries, meaning NWS also would have needed to ask Congress for permission to move the money into the Local Warnings and Forecast account.
But the NWS Employees Organization contends that such a request was necessary in light of widespread vacancies that left some local forecasting offices with only a third of their staff levels.
In a press release today, the union criticizes NWS for putting in place an "unnecessary and dangerous" hiring freeze last March, despite the available money.
The dispute comes as NWS struggles to right its budget after revelations in 2012 that agency officials had mismanaged funds. Without the required approval from Congress, NWS had moved money from capital improvement accounts to pay salaries.
Congress has since increased the budget for the agency's Local Warnings and Forecast account, which pays forecasters' salaries.