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Agricultural inspectors at borders feel they've lost their clout

WASHINGTON—Low morale plagues the border inspectors shielding the country from potentially catastrophic pests and diseases.

Many agricultural inspectors say their work has suffered since they were forced out of the Agriculture Department, a sobering new survey finds. Now wearing Customs and Border Protection uniforms, the agricultural specialists find little to praise in the new agency.

"Nothing is going well," many of the inspectors believe, according to the new Government Accountability Office survey.

Sixty-four percent of the agricultural border inspectors polled said they don't think homeland security managers respect their work. Nearly one in three fears that "the agricultural mission is declining," and one in five warns that training is inadequate.

"Some wrote that non-agriculture inspectors at their ports view the agriculture mission as less important," the GAO auditors noted. "Others noted that (Customs and Border Protection) management is not interested in and does not support agriculture inspections."

The morale and performance problems matter because the 1,800 agricultural inspectors are literally on the front lines of U.S. efforts to fend off avian bird flu and other looming devastations. The inspectors are already outgunned, as they confront some 317 million auto passengers, 86 million airplane passengers and 11 million seaborne containers entering the United States annually.

Since March 2003, the agricultural inspectors have been part of the 180,000-member Department of Homeland Security. From the start, farmers have worried that the sprawling agency will neglect plants and animals in favor of chasing terrorists.

The new survey underscores those fears. Fifty-nine percent of the experienced inspectors polled said they're doing fewer agricultural inspections.

"Our concern is that the merger has not gone well and is not going well," Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said Monday.

A trade organization based in the San Joaquin Valley town of Exeter, California Citrus Mutual recently sent a delegation to Capitol Hill to discuss issues that included the agricultural inspectors. Lawmakers just "shook their heads" when farmers suggested legislation moving the inspectors back into the Agriculture Department, Nelsen reported. However, the farmers might pursue other ideas next year, including boosting pay and hiring more inspectors.

"We're looking at some farm bill strategies," Nelsen said.

The Bush administration had first resisted, and then embraced, the concept of a Homeland Security Department. Some bureaucratic problems are to be expected, officials say.

"Yes, there are concerns whenever we have more than one agency involved," White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend said when asked about the new survey Monday, "but we are dealing with it by the planning and preparedness effort we're making now."

Townsend cited progress on many other bio-defense fronts, issuing the White House's own report card on meeting goals for defending against pandemic influenza. Some 92 percent of the 101 short-term goals set so far have been met, Townsend reported.

The Bush administration's accomplished goals included "pre-scripted public messages that can later be tailored to the specifics of a given outbreak and delivered by trained spokespersons." They also included conducting practice exercises and developing simulations for examining how avian flu might spread.

None of the White House pandemic influenza goals, though, directly addresses the agricultural inspectors' morale.

"Mergers the size of the Department of Homeland Security take time, and not everyone will agree on a personal level that we have reached the optimum level of job satisfaction and performance," department spokeswoman Erlinda Byrd said, adding that officials will "continue to improve our operations."

The survey of 626 agricultural specialists tapped a deep well of discontentment. Ninety-three specialists said nothing is going well with the merger, while only 10 said most things are going well. The agricultural specialists feel like second-class citizens compared with their gun-toting Border Patrol colleagues.

"Several specialists wrote they believed that not carrying firearms reduced their potential for advancement," the GAO auditors noted.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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