WASHINGTON - The Forest Service is cutting some programs in order to divert the operating money to pay for unexpectedly expensive studies on what agency functions might be shifted to private companies.
Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said it's not yet clear what will be cut, or how the cuts will affect Alaska.
The National Federation of Federal Employees, the federal employee labor union which opposes the Bush administration's privatization initiative, estimates the cost of the studies will reach $100 million, 10 times the initial projection of $10 million.
Thomas Mills, deputy chief for business operations at the Forest Service, said the studies are costing more than expected, but not that much more.
"It's going to be more than $10 million but not anywhere near $100 million," he said.
Mills sent a letter to each of the Forest Service's nine regions last month, asking them to submit new data on how much the privatization studies were going to cost. Those results are being tabulated and should be available in a few weeks.
The administration is studying the potential savings to be had by allowing private firms to compete for as many as 10,000 of the Forest Service's 40,000 jobs.
But just because they are being studied does not mean that all those jobs will be privatized, Mills said.
"The objective is not about replacing permanent agency staff with private contractors," he said. "The objective is improving the cost-effectiveness of our program."
The cost of the studies, however, is sapping money from other Forest Service programs, said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees' Forest Service Council.
In the Northern Rockies region, for example, $180,000 was taken from trail maintenance to complete a study. In Montana, campgrounds didn't open on schedule because maintenance money was diverted.
Mills said he did not have specific knowledge of those cases, but "it is true that some of the money we're spending on competitive sourcing would have otherwise have been spent on programs."
So far, eight competitive sourcing studies have been completed, Mills said. Six Job Corps programs for at-risk youth are being kept in the Forest Service's purview, while two outside contracts have been issued for a computer help line and a group to analyze public comments on proposed agency regulations.
Senators, upset that they weren't consulted before the $10 million was committed to the competitive sourcing initiative, wrote into the Interior Department's spending bill that no more money is to be spent studying the issue until they are fully briefed on the topic and have signed off on the proposal.
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