A watchdog report on the high costs of permanent change-of-station moves reveals that the average cost of moving troops' household goods has actually decreased since the Defense Department made wholesale changes to the way it moves those shipments.

The Government Accountability Office report indicates that in most cases there were significant decreases from 2010 to 2014 in the average cost of moving household goods shipments.

The report provides comparisons of the costs for each service for both the officer and enlisted communities. The biggest drops were in the Marine Corps, with the average enlisted household goods shipment costing the government 82 percent less in 2014 than in 2010, while average officer move costs were down 39 percent.

The Navy was the only service that did not see a decrease in its average cost of household goods shipments. The average cost of officer shipments in that service rose by 2 percent, to $10,127 — the highest officer cost of any branch. The average cost of Navy enlisted household goods shipments remained flat, at $5,109.

The average cost of moving Army officers' household goods shipments plunged 20 percent over the timeframe examined, while the average cost of moving Army enlisted members' household goods increased by 1 percent.

A new Defense Personal Property System that became fully operational in 2011 has been the main reason for the cost declines, said Air Force Col. Michael Erhardt, chief of the personal property program for the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the executive agent responsible for overseeing all DoD household goods moves.

"We have seen the cost per move go down, from the program perspective," he said, adding that SDDC is running preliminary numbers on cost data and digesting the results of the GOA report.

The new system for shipping household goods was designed to address problems with lost and damaged shipments. The changes included providing full value replacement for lost or damaged goods, rather than partial value, and a shift from using the moving company with the lowest cost to the company with the best value, based mostly on customer satisfaction ratings.

The new system also provides online claims filing and direct settlement of claims between service members and moving companies.

After a rocky start in 2010, when officials began working some shipments through the new system, further adjustments have improved the process.

For the most part, service members have gotten through this year's peak summer moving season with relatively few problems. However, there were generally more cases of missed requested delivery dates this summer compared to the same period in the past three years.

Depending on the week, about 20 percent to more than 33 percent of shipments were delivered late during peak season. Erhardt said that's partially explained by a continued industrywide decrease in the number of truck drivers to haul military shipments to their destination.

He also said some late deliveries involve international shipments affected by a decrease in the number of U.S. flag carriers that are operating vessels, and fewer sailings among those that remain.

In looking at a wider time span, GAO auditors noted that from 2001 to 2014, total military PCS costs increased by 13 percent, from $3.8 billion to $4.3 billion, even as the number of PCS moves declined by 12 percent, from 731,967 to 646,387.

Auditors found that total costs per move — including allowances for travel, lodging and other benefits, household goods shipments, vehicle shipments, and other aspects — rose by 28 percent from 2001 to 2014.

The GAO noted that there are limitations in the data available for 2001 through 2009, but said the data is reliable enough to analyze trends in costs for 2010 through 2014, which reflects an overall downward trajectory.

"We believe that most of what the [GAO] report focuses on as being cost drivers ... has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual movement of personal property," said Charles White, senior vice president of International Association of Movers. "The Defense Personal Property Program is a highly competitive program and DoD has derived significant cost savings since its implementation."

The report shows an even more dramatic drop in average costs for shipping troops' privately-owned vehicles to and from overseas locations from 2010 to 2014. For example, the government's average cost for shipping a Navy officer's personal vehicle plunged by 76 percent, to $2,545.

A new contractor took over POV shipments in 2014. "We know the contract was substantially cheaper as we transitioned from the previous contract," Erhardt said, explaining that was due partly to a decrease in the number of vehicle processing centers, and partly to "a different competitive acquisition strategy."

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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