House seeks to ease out-of-pocket moving expenses
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
By Tom Philpott
The House Armed Services Committee, in voting out a defense authorization bill for fiscal 2002, took a surprise swipe at one of the big irritants of service life out-of-pocket travel costs when military members are ordered to new assignments.
A recent survey of members during "permanent change of station" moves, or PCS, found that the government reimburses, on average, only 62 cents for every dollar spent on transportation, household goods shipments, lodging and miscellaneous expenses. Members, on average, are stuck paying $1,151 out of pocket. In other words, they subsidize their own reassignments.
Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), new chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, decided to ease reimbursement inequities in two increments, in 2002 and 2003, amid a rising tide of complaints from members, particularly junior enlisted. The PCS survey found that young enlisted families pay roughly 73 percent of their relocation costs, a disturbing statistic that helps explain why so many struggle with debt.
McHugh noted, for example, that a big element in a hodgepodge of military travel pays, the Temporary Lodging Expense Allowance or TLE, hasn't been raised since 1982. Members draw up to 10 days' TLE for moves inside the continental United States if forced to live in temporary quarters before or after a move. The full committee adopted a recommendation from McHugh's panel to raise TLE by roughly two thirds, from $110 a day to $180, effective Jan. 1, 2002.
Also, for the first time, TLE would be paid to newly commissioned officers moving to first duty assignments. Young enlisted moving to first assignments were authorized TLE for the first time earlier this year. The TLE improvements in fiscal 2002 would cost $43 million.
A House-Senate conference committee will meet this fall to work out differences in separate versions of the defense bill and likely decide the fate of the TLE gains and the other travel pay reforms in the bill. The other gains, also proposed to take effect in January 2002, include:
- A partial dislocation allowance of $500 a month for members ordered out of quarters for renovation or repairs.
- An increase in pet quarantine fees, from $275 to a new maximum of $675. Families assigned to Hawai'i and the United Kingdom are particularly vulnerable to out-of-pocket quarantine costs.
- Advance payment of vehicle storage fees, and shipment of vehicles at government expense, when moving within the continental United States.
The House committee endorsed even more significant travel pay reforms, to take effect in January 2003. But the committee also signaled the Defense Department that lawmakers are open to alternatives as long as they continue the trend toward reducing out of pocket costs for members.
Steve Rossetti, who served as director of travel and relocation reforms for the Defense Department during final years of the Clinton administration, said the House PCS initiatives are long overdue.
"It finally recognizes PCS as a difficult issue and (relieves) major stresses and irritants of military service," he said.
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