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(U.S. Air Force)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Airmen living in the Kaiserslautern area who were overpaid overseas housing allowance — in some cases amounting to thousands of dollars — won’t have to repay the money just yet, if at all.

Air Force finance officials at Ramstein said they are seeking a “remission of indebtedness” for all airmen affected, meaning they will ask higher headquarters to cancel or forgive the debt and not seek reimbursement of the erroneous payments.

Until a decision on remission is made, the Air Force won’t try to recoup the money, Andy Coggins, chief of financial operations for U.S. Air Forces in Europe — Air Forces Africa, told airmen at a briefing Tuesday at Ramstein.

A recent audit of housing records found that 189 airmen assigned to the Kaiserslautern area were overpaid a collective $590,276 in overseas housing allowance from roughly 2009 to 2012. The largest overpayment is about $26,317; the smallest, $3.89. Twenty airmen were found to be underpaid, and those airmen will be reimbursed as soon as documents are processed, officials said. The highest amount owed to an airman is $7,452.

The audit only looked at the contracts of airmen currently receiving overseas housing allowance — and not of those who have left the Ramstein area, even if recently. Civilians or soldiers also were not included, though Air Force officials are working with the Army on how to proceed with a review of current Army housing contracts, officials said.

Most of the errors are believed to have occurred when airmen’s housing contracts were processed and certified at the housing office. Most of the mistakes resulted from double utility payments, when the costs of a particular utility — such as a fixed monthly rate for water or the chimney sweep — was added to rent and then also included in a separate utility calculation.

Officials at Ramstein say the housing office corrected the problem in 2012, after it changed the way it certifies leases, officials said. Landlords are now required to break out and clarify which utilities they include in rent, and which ones their renters are responsible to pay.

Whether the issue is more widespread isn’t known. No similar problems as those found here have been discovered elsewhere yet.

USAFE officials are reviewing how overseas housing allowance is processed at its other bases in Europe, Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a command spokeswoman said. At this time, “we’re aware that Ramstein is the only one,” she said Wednesday.

The Air Force Audit Agency, which discovered the initial discrepancies in Air Force housing contracts at Ramstein this spring, also audited two other bases in Europe, Klinkel said. Though Ramstein was the only base with inconsistencies, the command decided to do an internal review to see if other bases were affected, she said.

Before submitting a group remission application, finance officials are reviewing each case to ensure nothing suggests airmen knew they were being overpaid and tried to cheat the government.

“We work on the presumption that most folks took the paperwork, it was processed, there was no intent to deceive, defraud or anything of that nature,” Coggins told airmen at Tuesday’s briefing. “You fall in that category, you’ll be part of this package and then it’s going to go forward.”

Knowing the command was going to bat for them was reassuring, airmen said, but some said more information upfront was needed.

“The big issue I’ve kind of had so far is, just until the other day, is not really understanding what was going on,” said Capt. Robert Bouffard, 32.

When housing notified him two weeks ago, “they weren’t able to provide a lot of information,” he said. He was told that he was overpaid 20 euros a month for the chimney sweep over three years.

“In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a ton of money,” he said. But being told at the outset it was covered and then told he’d have to pay it back — “It’s an emotional issue.”

For Staff Sgt. Robert Kubicek, it is about the money, if it turns out he has to pay back an estimated $10,000. He was told he received an extra 215 euros a month for more than three years.

When he signed his lease at the housing office, “they told me that my water and oil were going to go under rent and not my utilities,” he said, since those utilities were read off a shared, single meter. “I assumed, ‘OK, they know what they’re talking about.”

On his paycheck, rent and utilities are lumped under one entitlement, so he said the overpayment wasn’t obvious.

He’s optimistic he and the others affected won’t have to pay back the money.

“Obviously, this is such a huge thing that there’s no way, I feel, that they can hold us responsible.”

Air Force guidance on debt remission says the Secretary of the Air Force can remit or cancel any part of a debt if such action is considered to be in the best interest of the United States.

If the group application is denied, then airmen would have to file individual waivers asking for the debt to be dropped.

One airman at the briefing asked: “What options do we have if we don’t feel that we’re responsible for the debt?”

They could “request relief,” Coggins said. “It’s not admitting guilt, but the reality is, when you just go back and do the math, folks were overpaid. It’s not that we’re trying to single anybody out, it’s just the barebones basic math.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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