CUSTOMS: REORGANIZATION WON'T HURT SERVICE OCT. 1 DATE FOR REVAMP NEARS

CUSTOMS: REORGANIZATION WON'T HURT SERVICE OCT. 1 DATE FOR REVAMP NEARS

Major gateways should experience no disruption in service on Oct. 1 as Customs transfers many functions of its district offices to the new port of entry offices created under the agency's reorganization plan.

"The process will be relatively transparent to the trade community," Audrey L. Adams, Customs' newly appointed port director for Los Angeles-Long Beach, told a Women in World Trade luncheon last week. "I don't think you'll see any major differences," she said.The 200-year-old Customs Service announced last year it was embarking on a massive reorganization effort that will reduce staffing levels at its Washington headquarters, eliminate seven regional and 42 district offices, and reassign more Customs personnel to the 301 seaports, airports and border crossings where cargo is actually cleared.

SERVICE DISRUPTION FEARED

In three weeks, these changes will take effect. Importers, customs brokers and carriers have naturally been concerned that such a radical change in Customs operations will result, at least initially, in a disruption of services. They have envisioned dealing with different specialists who are not familiar with how the trade operates locally.

Ms. Adams, for example, will report to her new assignment in Los Angeles

from Laredo, Texas, where she has been serving as district director. The 24- year Customs veteran told the Southern California trade community not to worry.

Most of the import specialists, entry teams, inspectors, broker compliance officers and other front-line personnel the trade community has been used to dealing with will remain in their positions, Ms. Adams said. This is true for all Customs offices across the country.

The trade community remains optimistic, though a bit skeptical. "In my experience, there is always a wrinkle when these things occur," said John Peterson, vice president of Western Overseas Corp. in Los Angeles. "But I look for a minimum of disruption," he said.

CHANGES MAINLY INTERNAL

The big difference under the reorganized Customs will be how the agency conducts its internal affairs. Personnel, financial and other internal functions formerly handled by the 42 district offices are being turned over to the 20 newly created Customs Management Centers.

The goal here is to remove redundant layers of internal management at the district, regional and national levels. "We were kind of a top-heavy organization," she said.

Major gateways such as Los Angeles did not have Customs port directors

because matters that affected the trade community were handled by the district director and the assistant directors for inspection and control and commercial operations.

Ms. Adams said some of the staff positions that reported to the directors may receive new titles as they become "process owners" under the new system, but they will still interact directly with the trade community in the processing of import documentation and classification of merchandise.

PROBLEMS TO BE SOLVED LOCALLY

A major change that importers and customs brokers should notice, and benefit from, is that problems and rulings that formerly were kicked up to the regional or even national levels will now be handled by the Customs port director in the local community, Ms. Adams said. "You have every right to expect the port director to respond directly to those questions," she said.

The major Customs gateways already have most of this infrastructure in place. Also, the brokers, importers and carriers at the larger ports have a high level of sophistication and experience in dealing with Customs issues, so the transition should proceed smoothly, Ms. Adams said.

The local trade community apparently agrees.

Patty Senecal, vice president of sales at Transport Express in Carson, Calif., said Customs in recent years has kept the trade informed on new rulings and procedures through its outreach program. "We are optimistic this will continue under the leadership of Ms. Adams," she said.

Mr. Peterson of Western Overseas said his main concern is that Customs in Washington appears to be discouraging appeals to headquarters. Although the local offices have worked closely with the trade, there are occasionally disagreements that must be resolved at a higher level.