BROKERS URGE CUSTOMS CHIEF TO MEND COMMERCIAL OPERATIONS

BROKERS URGE CUSTOMS CHIEF TO MEND COMMERCIAL OPERATIONS

Carol Boyd Hallett, the new commissioner of Customs, has won the hearts of customs brokers with her style. To win their loyalty, brokers say, Ms. Hallett must make good on her pledge to improve Customs' commercial operations.

"Ms. Hallett is going to the trade community for comment rather than issuing directives," said William S. Ansley, president of W.G. Carroll & Co. in Atlanta and the newly elected vice president of the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America."She's got a wonderful style. She's very intelligent. The ingredients are there," added Jon Kent, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents customs brokers in legislative matters. "Now we'll have to see if the dialogue system works better than the confrontational system," Mr. Kent said, in an obvious reference to the style of former commissioner William von Raab.

Mr. von Raab, whom Ms. Hallett succeeded late last year, often angered customs brokers through sudden policy changes. Ms. Hallett has pledged not to spring any surprises on the trade community but rather to consult with brokers and importers before drawing up proposed changes.

The new Customs chief is scheduled to address the brokers' group here Thursday. She is likely to find her audience receptive but also demanding action on key issues still facing the trade community.

When the New York-based organization opened its annual meeting Monday, brokers outlined these issues at a luncheon for reporters:

* Centralized examination stations. This policy of setting up a few sites at seaports and airports where incoming cargo is inspected is still controversial in some locations. Although the centralized sites seem to be working well in Los Angeles, brokers at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport prefer the traditional method of sending Customs inspectors to every terminal.

* Automation. During the eight-year administration of Mr. von Raab, Customs automated many of its operations. Although brokers resisted these changes at first, they gradually made the investment necessary to automate their companies and are generally pleased with the results.

Brokers charge, however, that Customs is so zealous now in promoting automation that it bases its decisions on what will expedite the automation process rather than on what makes good commercial sense.

Ms. Hallett said Customs will not initiate new automation programs this year so that everyone can digest what is in place. Mr. Ansley, though applauding this decision, added that she is not backing off from any program started by her predecessor, even if certain programs have not been tested sufficiently.

* National entry processing. Under this proposed program, entry documents can be filed anywhere, regardless of where the merchandise enters the country. Customs, with the support of larger importers, has tested the program in a few locations and supports the concept, while brokers are urging a go-slow policy until the process is further refined.

* Drawback. The 200-year-old policy of returning up to 99 percent of the duties paid on imported merchandise when the goods are re-exported has not lived up to its potential, importers and brokers say. They charge that some companies hesitate to file for drawback because of what they say is an overly aggressive auditing policy by Customs.

Mr. Kent said he does not believe this is a holdover from the enforcement- mi nded von Raab administration, but rather had become institutionalized within Customs even before Mr. von Raab took over.

"This is a terrific problem," he said.

* Periodic entry filing and payment of duties. Some importers favor this proposed policy, which would allow entries to be filed in batches and duties to be accumulated and paid periodically, but brokers have yet to support the moves, saying they may not be workable as currently proposed.

* Customs user fee. If Congress in September does not reauthorize the user fee, which generates about $500 million a year in revenues, it will die. Importers and brokers charge that the fee is really a tax because the money collected goes into the general fund rather than being used for operations at Customs. Mr. Kent says Congress should go beyond letting the user fee die and should actively vote against renewing it.

Brokers say that, in many cases, the new spirit of cooperation fostered by Ms. Hallett has filtered down to the district level.

"In New Orleans, the district office feels refreshed. They feel they can communicate now," said Paul F. Wegener, vice president of M.G. Maher & Co.