GAO report says PCS costs rising even as number of moves drops

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A servicemember stationed in the National Capital Region oversees delivery of his household goods Oct. 3, 2014, from his residence in Waldorf, Md. (Jim Dresbach/ Department of Defense photo)
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A servicemember stationed in the National Capital Region oversees delivery of his household goods Oct. 3, 2014, from his residence in Waldorf, Md. (Jim Dresbach/ Department of Defense photo)

GAO report says PCS costs rising even as number of moves drops

by: Wyatt Olson | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: September 11, 2015

The average cost of moving a servicemember to a new duty station ballooned by 14 percent over the past 14 years, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

Even as the number of permanent-change-of-station, or PCS, moves dropped by 12 percent from 2001 to 2014, the costs rose from $3.8 billion to $4.3 billion.

That equated to an increase per move from $5,238 to $6,727, the GAO reported.

What is driving the cost spike remains unclear because the Department of Defense “does not conduct periodic evaluations of the PCS program and is not in a position to identify and evaluate changes that may be occurring over time in PCS per-move costs and the factors driving such changes, nor is it in a position to take steps to manage and control cost growth,” the GAO said.

Given that the Pentagon annually spends more than a half-trillion dollars, the costs of PCS moves are relatively small. The Defense Department spent about $43 billion on almost 700,000 PCS moves from 2001 to 2014, according to data from the report.

The DOD is under pressure to find cuts wherever it can, however, particularly due to sequestration.

Some types of PCS moves are rigid in the when-and-where they happen — such as accession and separation travel — and the services have little flexibility in cutting costs there, the report found.

Service officials told the GAO they did have discretionary control over operational and rotational moves — which accounted for 64 percent of the costs during the 14-year period. Both types are used to move personnel to or from duty stations or extended training.

Some lawmakers have viewed the realm of PCS as ripe for cost savings.

In 2012, the Senate Appropriations Committee directed the DOD to provide a plan for lengthening tours of duty, or time on station, in order to cut PCS expenses.

In a 2014 report to Congress, the DOD concluded that a preferable course of action would be to extend time-on-station lengths on a voluntary basis rather than across the board. The issue has not moved any further ahead, the report said.

The DOD does not have data to determine whether personnel are meeting the required lengths of their time-on-station, the GAO said.

The overall increase in per-move costs since 2001 varied across the four military services.

The Marine Corps saw the largest increase in average per-move costs, 42 percent, during the 14 years, with the Air Force having the smallest increase.

“However, the Air Force had the highest average per-move cost ($8,548), and the Marine Corp had the lowest ($4,679),” the report said.

While the Air Force had not conducted any analyses to ascertain why it held that top spot, officials with the service told the GAO that the Air Force moved more officers than enlisted airmen.

Indeed, the GAO found that the average cost of moving an officer from all services during fiscal years 2010 through 2014 was 134 percent higher than to move an enlisted servicemember, primarily because the latter has a higher allowance for household goods shipments, travel expenses and miscellaneous costs.

The GAO found that the Marine Corps had the highest average cost for dependent moves, at $1,410 for the dependent of an enlisted servicemember, compared with $614 for the same category in the Air Force.

Marine Corps officials told the GAO that some of the extra expense arose from allowing dependents to make separate PCS moves so that “military spouses can have increased career stability and dependents can attend the same schools,” according to the report.

Although the reasons for the increase in overall PCS costs isn’t clear, several changes have contributed. In 2009 the DOD began including full-value replacement and repair for damaged or lost household goods, rather than partial reimbursement. In 2008 the temporary lodging allowance was increased from $180 to $290 per day.

The report did not include data on civilian PCS moves or deployment of troops downrange.

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson