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The FBI's Least Wanted

The high cost of living is driving agents from some of the largest, most important cities. A few who stayed have gone on food stamps.

July 23, 2003|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, Bob Hoelscher stepped up to a microphone at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and, in a time-honored graduation ritual, opened an envelope with a slip of paper that identified his first assignment.

San Francisco, it read.

An attorney with a wife and infant son, Hoelscher had heard stories about the cost of living in the Bay Area. "But how bad can it be?" he thought.

After driving cross-country, he found out.

With a starting salary of $50,000, Hoelscher, then 33, was priced out of housing anywhere near his new job. After months of searching, he found a $250,000 house in Fairfield -- 58 miles from San Francisco. His commute takes 75 minutes each way, if the weather is good.

"I actually live in the Sacramento division," Hoelscher said. "There are tons of us who do the same thing each day."

While the FBI plays a lead role in the war on terrorism, many agents say they are waging a private battle against financial hardship. An outdated pay structure has left many agents struggling to make ends meet, especially in high-cost cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Some agents endure lengthy commutes. Others have gone deep into debt. A few have gone on food stamps or moved into government housing.

FBI veterans say the impact on the bureau's crime-fighting prowess is subtle, but unmistakable. Scores of younger agents are resigning for better-paying jobs in the private sector. Experienced agents want out of big cities. Top-level vacancies in specialties ranging from white-collar crime to counterterrorism go begging for applicants.

The financial squeeze, agents say, is greatest in the very urban centers where the need for top investigative talent is most urgent.

"It is the elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about," said Nancy Savage, a Portland, Ore., agent who is president of the FBI Agents Assn. "It is killing us in terms of getting people to want to work and stay in these high-cost cities. And these are critical places for us to work."

A House subcommittee will hold a hearing today on legislation to boost salaries for thousands of federal law enforcement personnel working in the nation's most expensive cities for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.

"It's a major issue, not only in terms of quality of life and morale for the agents, but in terms of recruiting and keeping the most competent agents in these big cities," said former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.

In San Francisco, which has the nation's highest housing prices, FBI officials estimate that 9% of the agents resign each year, compared with 2% for the bureau as a whole. A recent study found that of 313 agents hired in San Francisco from 1995 through 2002, 41% transferred to other cities.

A decade ago, there were 17 applicants for a coveted assignment as an assistant special-agent-in-charge in the FBI's San Francisco division, recalled Mark Mershon, who won that competition and now runs the office.

It was a different story this year when two jobs at the same rank became vacant in San Francisco. Because of FBI rules on promotions, most applicants for such positions are bureau veterans from other parts of the country. The cost of living in the Bay Area frightened them off.

"I had no takers. Zero," said Mershon, a 28-year FBI veteran. "Nobody raised their hands."

Mershon eventually filled the jobs with two top candidates from out of state, but only after FBI headquarters bent the rules and offered each of the appointees a relocation bonus equal to 15% of their base salaries.

"It's shocking," said Dave Miller, head of the FBI's counterterrorism program in San Francisco. "If the American dream is to own a home with a small backyard, it's ironic that many FBI agents who are sworn to defend and protect this country have trouble buying into that dream."

That trouble is greatest in places such as Los Angeles, where a new FBI agent earns a base salary of $39,204. A "locality" adjustment for living costs, coupled with 10 hours per week of mandatory overtime, bring the salary up to $56,843.

With the median home price in Los Angeles County at $313,000, the average new agent is priced out of the local market and must spend three hours a day commuting to and from work, according to the FBI Agents Assn.

Over time, agents become more comfortable financially. In Los Angeles, they can earn $84,000 after five years. The struggle is in the early years, and it is especially acute in the FBI because most new agents are on their second careers, and they have or are starting families.

Reality Check

In Portland, one new agent was stunned to learn two years ago that he and his family qualified for food stamps.

"We moved from Ohio ... and were having to go to our credit card for food and gas and everyday expenses where you don't normally use a credit card," said the agent, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

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