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Military communities anticipate base closures



Published: Sat, April 9, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



There already have been four rounds of closures since 1988.

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

For hundreds of communities across the country, closing a military base is the civic equivalent of a root canal.

The Pentagon says dozens of unneeded facilities, which are now eating up precious money, must be shut down or consolidated as part of the evolution of the U.S. military into a 21st-century fighting force. That could include the Youngstown Joint Air Force Base.

Arguing that it might be true for other bases, cities and states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying officials that their installations are too pivotal to the nation's defense to close.

Whether that money was well-spent will become clear May 16, the day the Pentagon will reveal its base hit list. Here's a Q & amp;A look at what is to come:

Q. Why does the Pentagon believe bases must close?

A. Even after four previous rounds of closings beginning in 1988, in which 97 major installations were killed and about $17 billion in savings generated, the 425 remaining bases are still too many, officials say.

While the Pentagon had been estimating that as many as 25 percent of those facilities could be deemed obsolete in the current round, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently that the toll might actually be less than 20 percent.

As have a parade of defense chiefs before him, Rumsfeld said the death of a base does not doom a community, fond as it may be of the jobs and economic ripple effect an installation brings.

With creativity and hustle, cities and states have turned mothballed bases into other revenue-producing uses, from commercial airports to housing developments.

Bottom line, the Pentagon contends, keeping obsolete bases going is an unaffordable waste.

Calling base closings "a good thing," Rumsfeld said recently, "it says to the taxpayers of America, by golly, we care about your dollars."

Q. Who is on the current Base Realignment and Closure committee?

A. It's headed by Anthony Principi, the Bush administration's first Veterans Affairs secretary. He has firsthand experience in dealing with the controversy spawned by closings, having presided over the contentious shuttering of three veterans hospitals and cutbacks at other facilities.

Picked by Congress and the White House, the eight commissioners on the panel include two former congressmen; a former White House chief of staff who also ran the Transportation Department during the first President Bush's administration; three retired generals and one ex-admiral; and a former assistant defense secretary from the Clinton administration.

Q. What are the criteria that the Pentagon and the commission use to pick installations for extinction, consolidation or realignment?

A. The most important one is the base's military value. The top concern is whether and how well the facility fits into Rumsfeld's strategy to "transform" the military into a leaner, quicker and more high-tech force, one more skilled at fighting insurgencies such as those facing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Further down on the criteria gauge: how much would be saved by closing the base, how long it would take to shut it down, the economic impact on the community and the environmental impact and cleanup costs expected.

Q. What bases will be on the list?

A. That's the $7 billion question (that's how much the Pentagon says will be saved annually if 20 percent of the current bases are closed). The unofficial word is that the goal is to spread the pain by having each state take some sort of hit.

Generally, any installation that appeared on earlier Pentagon hit lists but managed to escape the Grim Reaper -- such as Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico -- has a better chance of making the list again than ones that never were targeted.

Maintenance, storage and ammunition depots also are likely to find themselves in the bull's-eye. So are Air National Guard facilities that can be consolidated into nearby Air Force bases. Laboratories, training ranges and other facilities now serving just one service may well be re-jiggered into a smaller number of "joint" facilities to be shared by other services.

One wrinkle is the 70,000 U.S. troops in Europe and South Korea who will be brought stateside in the near future as a separate, overseas base-closing effort gets under way. Where they will be transferred has not been revealed.

Q. Once on the Pentagon death list, can a base win a reprieve?

A. It's possible but unlikely. Officially, it takes a majority vote of the commission to spare a base. But in past rounds, the panel has approved about 85 percent of the closings recommended by the Pentagon.

On the other hand, it will take seven votes on the nine-person panel to add a base not targeted by the Pentagon to the list.

One facility that did win a reprieve from the commission in 1991 was Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, where advocates were able to demonstrate that the Pentagon information used to target it was wrong.

Q. What happens next?

A. The thankless job of the commission begins in earnest. It will have until Sept. 8 to visit every facility recommended for closure, hold public hearings and review mountains of documents.

Its list of doomed facilities will then go to the White House, where President Bush will have until Sept. 23 to approve the entire list or reject it in full. This rule is designed to keep the White House from cherry-picking bases it would like to save and is meant to shield the process from political influence.

But even with that rule, cries of political foul rang out in 1995, when President Bill Clinton objected to the panel's decision to close Air Force maintenance depots in Texas. Republicans accused him of trying to curry votes in the Lone Star State, and Clinton eventually approved the list as it was.

After Bush acts this fall, Congress then will have a similar choice, which it must make by Nov. 7. The list will be considered final unless Capitol Hill rejects it entirely. If that happens, the commission will be directed to come up with another list.




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