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Material Overhead Rate — Off and On

Back to the recent Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) Technology Systems, Inc. (TSI) (ASBCA 59577 and the nine areas I believe are worth discussing:

  1. Supporting Material Overhead rate
  2. DCAA Auditor independence
  3. DCAA’s right to change their mind in subsequent audits
  4. Tax vs. Book on depreciation issues
  5. Bonuses
  6. Accrued Costs crossing fiscal year
  7. Unapproved subcontractors
  8. An excellent example of DCAA properly developing findings.
  9. Documenting consultants work product

I talked about unapproved contractors in the last article and today I am going to look at item one: Supporting Material Overhead rate. Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

The material overhead rate did not actually end up as part of this case only because the second DCAA auditor did not pursue it. TSI proposed a material overhead rate of 1.05% that the first DCAA auditor recommended be 100% disallowed while the second auditor accepted the rate. TSI alleged that the first auditor “had it in” for them and we will discuss the minimal discussion on DCAA auditor independence later.

Almost all of this article is speculative on my part and should not be taken to represent what actually occurred, but when I got the page where the initial DCAA auditor rejected all of the material overhead rate I thought “Crap, that has been a long time coming”. When I saw that DCAA backed off in the second stab at the audit, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Not this time”.

Two Sides of the Circle or Contractors with Multiple Government Bosses

It is important to remember that government contractors circle around two extremes of government compliance. On one side, there is the programs staff and their associated contracting officers. These are the guys who issue the RFP, decide you are the guy they want, and issue the contract in coordination with DCMA.

On the other side of the circle is DCAA which looks at the contractor’s costs and business systems then recommends actions to DCMA based on their audit work.

A government contractor needs to make both sides as happy as possible, and I would argue that Material Overhead Rates is one of the bizarre evolutions within government contracting that arose to make this hope of making both sides (programs and compliance) happy a reality. The concept exists in established cost accounting practice but is not as universal as many RFPs would imply.

Just Where Do We Put that Pesky G&A?

The FAR, CAS, and DCAA are strong on contractors allocating general and administrative (G&A) costs utilizing a method labeled Total Cost Input (TCI). TCI allocates G&A costs over all other costs (direct (to include materials and subcontractors), overhead, fringe and so on). CAS actually states “A total cost input base is generally acceptable as an appropriate measure of total activity of a business unit”.

Thus TCI is automatically accepted as a valid way of allocating G&A by everyone. Everyone except the government people on the other side of the circle (programs and their branch contracting officers). It often seems a majority of them think burdening travel, materials, subcontractors, and materials with a G&A rate is an outrageous and immoral act. Addressing this indignation over the years, it is clear to me that many of the associated program people (including buyers) look at this allocation as a mark-up not an allocation of actual allowable indirect costs.

I will give you two recent examples. One was a final four major accounting firm auditing a client’s incurred cost proposal on a DOE contract. The supervisor auditor entered my office at the client site (I was there supporting the audit) and spent a lot of time arguing that allocating G&A on a subcontract was unethical (his words) since the subcontract contained its own G&A and this meant the government was being charged twice.

Obviously he did not enjoy a great deal of experience with value added taxes, and I responded by asserting that was the subcontractor’s G&A and not the prime’s (my client). The two could simply not be compared. A G&A rate is not arbitrary and represents an allocation of legitimate indirect expenses, expenses of both the subcontractor and the prime contractor. It is not a ‘profit’.

He then argued that the allocated G&A simply stood out of proportion to the base cost. It takes a great deal more G&A to administer direct labor than cut a check to a subcontractor. I actually thought this a much stronger argument, but he was still out of his league. I reminded him that the prime is responsible for the subcontractor and it is never as simple as cutting a check.

He still argued on and on about the injustice of the allocation. I finally made two additional points that finally closed the argument. First, all allocation methods are ultimately subjective and arbitrary. Second, please leave my office and come back with a statutory or regulatory basis that supported his argument.

The second example involved an Army contracting officer complaining that because their contract with the contractor was about half materials and the Air Force’s contract was all services, the Army was receiving an inequitable allocation of G&A. I responded by stating that the inequity could only be applied on a government wide level and not a branch level.

The thought behind these arguments and the countless other times I encounter them, is that a dollar spent on direct materials, subcontractors, and even travel, should not receive the same amount of G&A as direct labor. To approach from a different angle, given a G&A rate of 10% it is unfair to burden $500,000 of material costs with $50,000 of G&A.

One way I attempt to explain this to the program’s side is by trying to tie them into the whole picture:

“Okay, if a contractor has $75,000 in direct labor, $25,000 in subcontractor costs with $10,000 in allowable G&A, we have to allocate the $10,000.  The government is legally obligated to pay for the $10,000. Total Cost Input gives $7,500 to the labor costs and $2,500 to the subcontractor costs. How would you do it?”

Too often I get a response such as “I do not know, but that is too much on the subcontractor”.

The Program People Come Up with an Idea

This, I believe led to the development of “Material Overhead Rate”, “Subcontractor Handling Rate” and other similar line items on various RFPs approximately fifteen years ago. These line items are intended to relieve materials and subcontractors of G&A costs while acknowledge there are indirect costs associated with these direct cost elements.

Problem solved?

The number one question I get from contractors working on these RFPs is “What rate do we use?” or “How do we calculate this rate?” In other words, how do contractors separate out from G&A the part of G&A associated with subcontractors or materials. The base is defined, but how do you populate the pool? How do we justify a 3% Material Overhead Rate with a separate 10% G&A rate?

If you want a glimpse at the potential can or worms these rates may open look at questions 12 -21 on the “Contractor Forward Pricing Rate Proposal Adequacy Checklist” under DFARS 215.403-5.

Again, this is supposition on my part, but I wonder if the first DCAA auditor asked TSI for just such documentation, the justification for creation and operation of the Materials Overhead rate. I am guessing she decided it was inadequate. I am also guessing the second DCAA auditor understood the complexity of this issue and decided to focus valuable time elsewhere.

Material Overhead and Subcontracting Handling are legitimate cost accounting objectives The challenges in developing and maintaining the rate are reduced for larger contractors where the size and frequency of activity makes it easier to allocate and define such allocations.

Small business contractors face greater challenges developing, implementing, and defending these rates. If you can identify time spent on handling materials on a specific contract, is this Material Overhead or Direct Labor? The same is true of the time spent reviewing a subcontractor invoice. Even if you feel comfortable with the methodology you develop there is no guarantee DCAA will not question it this year or next year (which is another issue raised in this case that we will address later).

This is one of those rare occasions where I will not share some of my approaches for addressing this issue among small business contractors. I prefer to share these on a case by case basis with DCAA if required. They are ethical and defensible, but vary from contractor to contractor.

Some RFPs appear to acknowledge some of these complexities and replace Material Overhead Rate with Material Overhead Fee. Take them at their word and treat it as a fee, a request not to burden materials or subcontractors with G&A while compensating contractors for the acknowledged costs involved in administrating those costs (materials and subcontractors). Do not include it in your rate proposal.

That is until some bright DCAA auditor wonders if the fee should be included in the base….

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