Customs lacks millions to modernize

The $3 million the Customs Service scraped together this month to keep a

pilot project alive falls far short of solving the agency's overall computer

modernization money problems.

Customs needs another $12 million to keep its computer modernization office

from shutting down in the next 45 days, Customs commissioner Raymond Kelly

told a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday.

Plus, the agency will need $210 million to help pay the fiscal 2001 portion

of the cost of replacing its 16-year-old import duty collection computer

system.

There is no obvious source for the needed $12 million, a Customs spokeswoman

said. And the $210 million — which the Clinton administration hopes to raise

by imposing new user fees on imports — looks doubtful, too. The administration

has sent Congress a schedule of proposed fees despite clear signals that

Congress opposes the idea.

"No way. It's not going to happen," said an aide to Rep. James Kolbe, R-Ariz.,

chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Customs

Service. Companies involved in cross-border trade have banded together to

persuade Congress not to impose any more fees on goods coming into the United

States.

The same companies, however, decry the Customs Service's 1980s-vintage Automated

Commercial System. When running well, the system is merely inefficient,

shippers complain. But it often isn't running well, or running at all. It

suffered brownouts just last week, Kolbe said. "The risk of failure of the

system is unacceptably high," he said. Failures disrupt trade worth $8 billion

a day.

Customs hopes to replace it with a system called the Automated Commercial

Environment (ACE), which is expected to cost $1.2 billion over four years.

The aged computer system is not the Customs Service's only high-tech headache.

The service also lacks advanced technology that could combat drug smuggling,

such as body scanners and X-ray and gamma-ray equipment for inspecting cargo

containers, Kelly said.

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