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Airmen won’t have to repay excess housing allowances they received

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2016

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — About 1,400 airmen are off the hook for millions of dollars in housing allowance they received in error while living off base in Germany, officials said.

The Air Force says the airmen — who were assigned to Spangdahlem and Ramstein air bases while receiving the overpayments — won’t have to return collectively about $4 million in Overseas Housing Allowance they weren’t entitled to, according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.

The Air Force Review Board Agency granted the command’s request to forgive the collective debt as part of a group waiver package submitted last fall.

“This approval allowed for the cancellation of outstanding OHA debt and was deemed in the best interest of the United States and that collection of the debts would create an inequitable situation for nearly 1,400” airmen, Capt. Lauren Ott, a USAFE spokeswoman, said in a statement this week.

The Air Force told USAFE of its decision in June, but it wasn’t publicly announced, Ott said. Those airmen affected by the judgement were informed through various channels.

For some airmen, it means they won’t have to repay tens of thousands of dollars in housing allowance to which the Air Force says they weren’t entitled. Debts ranged from as small as $8 to as much as $26,000.

USAFE sought the waiver because so many airmen incurred debt under similar circumstances, officials said last year.

Ott said USAFE doesn’t have a definitive timeline for when all the debts will be canceled, but the Air Force is working closely with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to expedite processing.

“All debts were suspended until the time that they are canceled,” Ott said. That means airmen, including those who have since retired or separated from the service, didn’t have to repay any money while awaiting the group waiver approval.

The debt will be canceled on airmen’s financial records, and they’re not required to take any action, officials said.

The erroneous housing payments were discovered during an audit of housing records. The Air Force Audit Agency noticed discrepancies in OHA payments during a routine audit that began in late 2014. The review included a small sample of off-base housing contracts at several Air Force bases in Europe.

The inconsistencies prompted a more thorough, internal audit at those bases, revealing widespread — and in some cases, sizeable — errors in housing allowance payments to airmen at Spangdahlem and Ramstein air bases.

Most of the debt — about $3 million — was incurred at Spangdahlem, where payment discrepancies were found in the housing records of nearly half of the 2,200 airmen receiving OHA at the time, officials said in the summer of 2015.

At Ramstein, about 400 airmen were affected, with the collective overpayment there amounting to about $1 million.

Many of the errors occurred as a result of double utility payments. In those cases, the housing contract certified by the housing office reflected a cost for rent that factored in utilities, even though airmen also receive a separate allowance for utilities while living overseas.

Many airmen said at the time that they didn’t know they were being overpaid because OHA appears as a single amount on their pay statements.

USAFE said “corrective actions” have been taken to avoid similar OHA errors in the future.

The housing contract form on which the errors occurred was unique to Germany. USAFE officials said last year they were revising the form.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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