Critics say base closures don't save dollars or make sense
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
By Tom Philpott
Four rounds of military base closings since 1988 have saved $17 billion, and those savings grow by $6.6 billion a year, according to Defense Department estimates. Are the savings real?
The General Accounting Office says they are. But Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., calls GAO's assessment a sham and suggests the numbers are phony enough to make WorldCom bosses blush.
At the heart of the matter, of course, is politics. Taylor is worried that a new round of base closings, set for 2005, could hit his district, which is home to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, a naval station in Pascagoula and a naval construction battalion center in Gulfport.
But his arguments have broader appeal. More than a few lawmakers are skeptical of base dollars saved, nervous over future military needs, and uncertain of a Bush administration call to cut the number bases by another 25 percent.
A GAO report in April said base realignment and closure rounds from 1988 through 1995 significantly reduced the Defense Department's "domestic infrastructure and freed up needed dollars for high-priority programs.'" Communities where bases closed are recovering well, with unemployment and income growth favorable, compared with U.S. averages.
Still, Taylor promises to stop the next round of closings if he and fellow Democrats regain a majority in the House after the November elections.
Taylor cites two reasons why closures haven't produced the savings claimed by GAO and Defense officials. First, abandoned bases are not being sold, as was promised.
"In almost every instance, the bases have been given away, including some extremely high-priced real estate like the Presidio in San Francisco'" and Governor's Island off the tip of Manhattan, Taylor said.
Second, Taylor said, the military has spent additional billions of dollars Defense officials say $7 billion, Taylor says $13 billion on environmental cleanup so that bases can be turned over safely.
Toss in promised federal money to retrain displaced workers, pay unemployment benefits, expand facilities at old bases, he said, "and the costs are enormous."
"I've repeatedly asked the question of generals and admirals because I know what the answer will be 'Name one weapon system that has been purchased with base closure money.' They can't. Not one. Because they haven't saved any money," Taylor said.
GAO and Defense officials say Taylor's question can't be answered because money saved from closed bases is not earmarked for particular weapon systems. More likely, the savings are made available for operations, maintenance and construction elsewhere, or just deepen the pot of defense money available.
Last year enough lawmakers accepted the savings estimates and bowed to pressure from the Bush administration to approve a fifth round of base closures. In a concession to anxious House members, House-Senate negotiators agreed on a three-year delay, until 2005.
Taylor said the Department of Defense, aware of large cleanup costs at older bases, has begun targeting newer bases with newer buildings and facilities. That's why it's so difficult to know whether a base is at risk.
"There has been no rhyme or reason in base closure," Taylor said. For anxious communities, "it's the equivalent of Russian roulette."
The GAO had criticized some past DoD attempts to quantify closure savings.
Recent estimates are seen as more solid. Despite Taylor's criticism, the net savings of $17 billion to date takes into account cleanup costs, GAO said.
Taylor blames base closings for tearing at civilian support of the military. When jobs disappear and property values fall and retirees lose access to base shopping and medical care, communities feel betrayed, Taylor said.
"The member they send to Congress goes from being someone really gung ho for the military to being someone who, in some instances, doesn't care and, in others, is down right angry with the military," Taylor said.
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