Five years ago, Bob Hoelscher stepped up to a microphone at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and, in a time-honored graduation ritual, opened an envelope with a slip of paper that identified his first assignment.
San Francisco, it read.
An attorney with a wife and infant son, Hoelscher had heard stories about the cost of living in the Bay Area. "But how bad can it be?" he thought.
After driving cross-country, he found out.
With a starting salary of $50,000, Hoelscher, then 33, was priced out of housing anywhere near his new job. After months of searching, he found a $250,000 house in Fairfield -- 58 miles from San Francisco. His commute takes 75 minutes each way, if the weather is good.
"I actually live in the Sacramento division," Hoelscher said. "There are tons of us who do the same thing each day."
While the FBI plays a lead role in the war on terrorism, many agents say they are waging a private battle against financial hardship. An outdated pay structure has left many agents struggling to make ends meet, especially in high-cost cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Some agents endure lengthy commutes. Others have gone deep into debt. A few have gone on food stamps or moved into government housing.
FBI veterans say the impact on the bureau's crime-fighting prowess is subtle, but unmistakable. Scores of younger agents are resigning for better-paying jobs in the private sector. Experienced agents want out of big cities. Top-level vacancies in specialties ranging from white-collar crime to counterterrorism go begging for applicants.
The financial squeeze, agents say, is greatest in the very urban centers where the need for top investigative talent is most urgent.
"It is the elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about," said Nancy Savage, a Portland, Ore., agent who is president of the FBI Agents Assn. "It is killing us in terms of getting people to want to work and stay in these high-cost cities. And these are critical places for us to work."
A House subcommittee will hold a hearing today on legislation to boost salaries for thousands of federal law enforcement personnel working in the nation's most expensive cities for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.
"It's a major issue, not only in terms of quality of life and morale for the agents, but in terms of recruiting and keeping the most competent agents in these big cities," said former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
In San Francisco, which has the nation's highest housing prices, FBI officials estimate that 9% of the agents resign each year, compared with 2% for the bureau as a whole. A recent study found that of 313 agents hired in San Francisco from 1995 through 2002, 41% transferred to other cities.
A decade ago, there were 17 applicants for a coveted assignment as an assistant special-agent-in-charge in the FBI's San Francisco division, recalled Mark Mershon, who won that competition and now runs the office.
It was a different story this year when two jobs at the same rank became vacant in San Francisco. Because of FBI rules on promotions, most applicants for such positions are bureau veterans from other parts of the country. The cost of living in the Bay Area frightened them off.
"I had no takers. Zero," said Mershon, a 28-year FBI veteran. "Nobody raised their hands."
Mershon eventually filled the jobs with two top candidates from out of state, but only after FBI headquarters bent the rules and offered each of the appointees a relocation bonus equal to 15% of their base salaries.
"It's shocking," said Dave Miller, head of the FBI's counterterrorism program in San Francisco. "If the American dream is to own a home with a small backyard, it's ironic that many FBI agents who are sworn to defend and protect this country have trouble buying into that dream."
That trouble is greatest in places such as Los Angeles, where a new FBI agent earns a base salary of $39,204. A "locality" adjustment for living costs, coupled with 10 hours per week of mandatory overtime, bring the salary up to $56,843.
With the median home price in Los Angeles County at $313,000, the average new agent is priced out of the local market and must spend three hours a day commuting to and from work, according to the FBI Agents Assn.
Over time, agents become more comfortable financially. In Los Angeles, they can earn $84,000 after five years. The struggle is in the early years, and it is especially acute in the FBI because most new agents are on their second careers, and they have or are starting families.
In Portland, one new agent was stunned to learn two years ago that he and his family qualified for food stamps.
"We moved from Ohio ... and were having to go to our credit card for food and gas and everyday expenses where you don't normally use a credit card," said the agent, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
"Out of curiosity," he said, his wife contacted the state of Oregon and learned that his FBI salary of $50,000, coupled with his previous salary in Ohio, which was lower, made the family of five eligible for food stamps.
"It was a reality check," the agent said.
After six months of government assistance, state officials reevaluated the family's eligibility. A full year's FBI salary put them above the limit, the agent said -- by about $2,000.
Another FBI agent took a 20% pay cut when he left the engineering profession to join the bureau in April 2000. He was assigned to San Jose.
The agent and his wife, who had an infant daughter, no debt and $5,000 in savings, found that apartments in safe neighborhoods went for a minimum of $1,500 a month. Taking home $2,900 a month, he said, he went through the family's savings his first year on the job.
"I was determined that I wasn't going to go into debt," said the agent, who is 32. "We weren't doing anything. We didn't go out to eat. We didn't go to movies. We were only surviving because of the savings."
He was about to give up and resign. Then he and seven other agents won a lottery for apartments at Moffett Federal Airfield, a former Naval air base in Mountain View. The family moved in just before the birth of their second daughter -- on Sept. 11, 2001.
They viewed the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment as a stopgap, but they are still there.
"We can't stay. It's not big enough," the agent said. "But we still can't buy a house."
In the late 1980s, the high cost of living in New York City caused a staffing crisis in that FBI division. Though it employed about 10% of the FBI's agents, the office was widely seen as the worst FBI assignment in the country because of living costs.
"They were losing several agents a week," recalled Savage, of the FBI Agents Assn. "It was just insane."
To stem the resignations, the FBI raised salaries and provided $20,000 bonuses for New York agents, she said. The bureau also adopted a "locality pay" formula to provide adjustments to the pay scale, depending on where in the country agents were assigned.
The formula has not been revised since then. Agents complain that it does not reflect the cost of living in a dozen particularly expensive cities. Pay adjustments are based solely on the wage level in a particular city or region. Agents complain that they do not take into account housing prices, transportation costs and other financial factors.
The system has bizarre consequences, agents say.
FBI personnel in Houston, for example, are the envy of their colleagues because private sector salaries are high, the state has no income tax and housing is affordable.
"They are middle-class in those places," said Hoelscher, the San Francisco agent, "while we're struggling to get by."
Some leave the bureau rather than struggle, and they include agents with valuable skills. In the last three years, the FBI has lost at least 14 agents and supervisors in five cities who investigated computer crimes, said Ken McGuire, a supervisory agent in Los Angeles who works in that specialty.
"That is not a hard number," McGuire said. "That is just the ones I know about."
Three years ago, a San Francisco agent poured out his frustrations in a letter to Freeh, then FBI director.
An ex-Marine, the agent said that in his tours of military duty and his assignments with the FBI, he had "willingly accepted sacrifice as a way of life."
"These sacrifices were made in the pursuit of a higher calling," he wrote. "However, we should not have to sacrifice the security and needs of ourselves and our families."
The agent, who asked not to be identified because he works undercover, later left the FBI for another federal agency that allowed him to relocate and earn a higher salary.
For many new agents, affordable housing comes with a commute that can add two, three, even four hours to the required minimum 10-hour workday.
In New York City, many agents travel from as far Allentown, Pa., 90 miles away. In Los Angeles, they drive to the FBI office in Westwood from as far away as Lancaster and Riverside.
Beyond keeping agents on the road for hours, financial pressures limit career options and make it harder for FBI management to fill important jobs.
"People are more hesitant today to raise their hands and go to the high-cost areas," said Frank Scafidi, a veteran supervisor in Sacramento. "We have people here who could run major cases in other cities.... But they have elected to stay in an environment that is more beneficial for their families."
The FBI cannot afford the flight of talent from its big-city offices, said retired Los Angeles agent Larry Langberg.
"That is where the best work ... and the biggest threats are," said Langberg, who headed the FBI Agents Assn. for seven of his 30 years with the bureau.
"Los Angeles shags some very good people, but it probably doesn't pick from as wide a group as it could because of the cost of living. And it is unfair to agents, and it is unfair to the American public in this era of terrorism, not to have the most talented and motivated people competing for those jobs."
Hoelscher, a native of southern Illinois, still has not adjusted to the high cost of living in San Francisco.
"My wife says, 'Why don't we move back home? You can go back to being a lawyer.' But I love my job, and pride makes you go on, I guess.
"But it's tough," he said. "We're always one financial disaster away from me having to resign."