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|News/Features - Feature Stories|
|Tuesday, 07 June 2005 18:00|
In 1995, community backers of a military base in a very arid part of the country offered to take drastic measures to satisfy the U.S. military, which had difficulty getting the water it needed and as a result wanted to shift some functions to different military bases.
“They were going to cut all the trees down by the river,” said Charles C. Smith in an interview with the River Cities’ Reader. In 1995, Smith was executive director of the BRAC Commission.
Most communities don’t suggest such drastic measures, but the anecdote demonstrates to what lengths people will go to save their military bases. Although BRAC – which stands for “Base Realignment & Closure” – is a mind-numbingly bureaucratic process with an alphabet soup of acronyms, to communities whose economies rely on military bases it’s a periodic source of deep anxiety.
And now the Quad Cities is facing the possibility of some major changes at the Rock Island Arsenal. According to the Department of Defense, a series of recommended realignments would result in the loss of 1,540 jobs at the Arsenal and the addition of 277 positions. That would mean the net loss of 1,263 of the Arsenal’s roughly 6,400 jobs – nearly 20 percent.
But those familiar with the Arsenal expect that if the recommendations are adopted, losses could be even higher. In two divisions, the number of people employed at the Arsenal is greater than the number listed in the recommendations. Taking those differences into account – 389 jobs in Tank-Automotive & Armaments Command (TACOM) and 66 in Defense Finance & Accounting Service (DFAS) – brings potential net job losses to roughly 1,700, more than 26 percent of the Arsenal’s current workforce.
And that’s just the beginning. The Department of Defense also estimates “indirect” jobs that could be lost if the recommendations are implemented. Those positions represent the ancillary economic impact, encompassing things such as retail jobs that would be lost to the local economy because of people leaving the area. According to the Department of Defense, more than 1,300 indirect job losses would accompany the Arsenal cuts.
In a workforce that numbers nearly 230,000 in the metropolitan area, that represents a hit of 1.3 percent of the workforce.
But the Quad Cities area is well-positioned in its effort to reverse those recommendations. First and foremost, the area has two states’ congressional delegations pulling for it. It also has former BRAC Executive Director Smith, now an associate in the Beltway firm The PMA Group. That company has a contract with the State of Illinois to lobby on behalf of the Rock Island Arsenal, Scott Air Force Base, and the National Guard units in Springfield and Peoria.
And the Quad Cities also have Jim Morgan, a longtime Arsenal employee who is spearheading the research that will serve as the foundation for the effort to keep jobs at the Arsenal.
“One of the best things you’ve got is Jimmy Morgan,” said Smith, who certainly speaks from experience.
The recommendations released by the Department of Defense on May 13 are now subject to review by the independent, nine-member BRAC Commission. The commission has the discretion to alter recommendations and passes them on to the president by September 8. The president and Congress then have the option of accepting or rejecting all of the recommendations; neither can change the suggestions.
Because of the limited authority Congress and the president have over the recommendations, communities focus their efforts on convincing BRAC staff and commissioners that their bases shouldn’t lose jobs. Thom Hart, president of the Quad City Development Group, said it is “unlikely” Congress or the president will reject the recommendations.
Still, changes to the BRAC recommendations are not uncommon. While 85 percent of base closings are approved, Smith said, “a lot of realignments get changed. ... It’s not a rubber stamp.”
BRAC was instituted in 1988 as a way to streamline military operations and to reduce excess military infrastructure. Previous rounds of the process were held in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. In its four previous incarnations, BRAC has shuttered 97 military bases, with total annual savings of $7 billion, according to the Department of Defense.
This year’s BRAC process, the Department of Defense has estimated, could save the federal government approximately $5 billion a year when fully implemented after six years. Thirty-three bases are targeted for closure.
Criteria for the evaluation included military value, costs, savings, economic impact, environmental impact, and “community support infrastructure.”
Before the most recent BRAC recommendations were released, Rock Island Arsenal supporters talked a lot about how the garrison was able to respond to military needs in a way that the private sector couldn’t. Specifically, the Arsenal was able to quickly adjust its manufacturing operations to armor Humvees to be used in the Middle East. That kind of flexibility isn’t available in the private sector, they argued.
The message was clear: Don’t take away our manufacturing jobs. Local leaders anticipated that the Department of Defense would look to further privatize military manufacturing.
Hart said that as the BRAC recommendations loomed, he was prepared for anything. But he conceded that he and others thought the Arsenal was “most vulnerable in the industrial side,” he said, “the factory.”
Minutes of the BRAC Infrastructure Executive Council reveal that as recently as April 11, the Rock Island Arsenal remained on a list of possible base closures. But the minutes also show a liquid process; on January 27, the Rock Island Arsenal was on a list of possible closures while also being a possible destination for 54 manufacturing jobs from a base in Mississippi.
In the end, fears about losing manufacturing jobs at the Arsenal were unfounded. So while Hart said he was ready for anything, longtime Arsenal advocates had to quickly change their tune from the refrain they’ve been sounding for years, switching to arguments in favor of keeping the white-collar jobs targeted for realignment.
Backers such as Hart know they have to use facts, numbers, and comparisons to make the Arsenal’s case, yet they also recognize that there needs to be a compelling narrative to save these jobs.
“This is not just an accounting question,” Hart said. “That’s really our focus – building the case.”
What everybody acknowledges is that a successful defense against a BRAC attack is not a woe-is-us plea about lost jobs. The BRAC process is not emotional, and a community is unwise to claim merely that job losses will have a negative economic impact.
“Us arguing economic development or jobs will not be effective,” Hart said. “The key is to do the hard analysis.”
Yet the opportunity for communities to lobby in support of their bases is very limited. At a regional hearing, a community will have a maximum of 30 minutes to make its best case, said Jim Morgan, program director for the Rock Island Arsenal Development Group and a retired Arsenal executive with 32 years of experience. “We have some cases that are better than others,” Morgan said. In other words, the Quad Cities need to decide which recommendations it has the best chance of reversing.
That regional hearing was scheduled for June 7 in St. Louis, but has been re-scheduled for June 20. When asked when he’d be done with his research, Morgan replied, “We expect to be done before we have to be at hearings.”
Beyond the regional hearing, the Quad Cities are focusing on arguments to convince the BRAC Commission staff that – at the least – the targeted jobs at the Rock Island Arsenal should stay there. In an ideal world, more jobs would be shifted to the Arsenal.
“There’s a coldness about this,” Hart said. “There are gainers and losers. Our goal is not to be a loser.”
What’s critical to recognize is that gainers beget losers, in the sense that to add jobs at one base the military must eliminate jobs at another station. So BRAC becomes a competition, one in which bases try to make the argument that they’re better-suited to certain tasks than another base.
So even as the Rock Island Arsenal tries to reverse the recommendations, it needs to guard against attacks from other bases seeking to take other jobs from the Quad Cities.
That’s where experienced advocates such as Smith come in. But even he has a lot of work ahead. Because the last BRAC effort was in 1995, there’s plenty of educating that needs to be done; in politics, a decade can be a lifetime. “A lot of members’ staffs have not gone through a base closure,” Smith said.
But again, the Arsenal is fortunate in that regard. Representatives Jim Nussle and Lane Evans have been in Congress for previous rounds of BRAC, as have Senators Tom Harkin, Chuck Grassley, and Dick Durbin. Of the Quad Cities delegation in Congress, only Senator Barrack Obama has never been through the process.
“They’re Making Assumptions of Savings That Aren’t There”
The easiest way to counter the recommendations is to say the Department of Defense screwed up. And Arsenal supporters think this was certainly the case in terms of the TACOM recommendation.
“Some of the people making the decisions were not people with an extensive knowledge of the organizations,” Hart said. He compared it to the owner of one business looking at the books of another company and making decisions about its future. “There may be a lack of understanding in how the accounting works,” he said.
“Sometimes there are problems” with the numbers, Smith said. The Department of Defense might be working with outdated information, he said, and comparisons between bases are made with incongruous information.
For instance, the Department of Defense’s BRAC report recommends moving the Rock Island Arsenal’s TACOM functions to the Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Michigan, and the Defense Supply Center in Columbus, Ohio. That would cost the Quad Cities 740 direct jobs, according to the Department of Defense.
But Morgan said the Arsenal presently has 1,129 TACOM employees. And while the Department of Defense lists 235 DFAS jobs to be shipped out, the Arsenal has 301 in that division.
Hence, the Arsenal stands to lose nearly 400 jobs more than the BRAC recommendations suggest. “The numbers at this point don’t make sense,” Hart said.
Yet Arsenal supporters believe this move, in particular, would cost the military more money – both up-front and in the long run – than keeping things the way they are or, ideally, moving some functions to the Rock Island Arsenal instead of Detroit.
“Even their numbers say they’re going to lose money doing it,” Morgan said.
The Department of Defense’s public recommendations do not break down the estimated cost savings for each individual move.
What the Rock Island Arsenal must argue, in essence, is that it is better-suited to host those TACOM functions than the Detroit Arsenal, or any other military facility, for that matter.
“There are clearly areas where they have not met their own criteria,” Hart said. “They’re making assumptions of savings that aren’t there.”
In particular, there is speculation that the Detroit Arsenal simply doesn’t have enough room to accommodate the functions that the BRAC recommendations would put there. Beyond that, there would be one-time construction costs that would not be present at the Rock Island Arsenal. Furthermore, because the Detroit Arsenal is in one of 31 high-cost areas in which the federal government must pay workers more, the labor costs for the move would be higher than shifting those people to the Quad Cities.
And the Arsenal has more than 300 acres of land on which it can expand, Smith said.
The Rock Island Arsenal ranked 52nd of 88 Army installations in terms of military value, while the Detroit Arsenal was 75th.
One problem has been that the Department of Defense was slow in making public the information on which the recommendations were based, Smith said. That information was supposed to be released no more than a week after the recommendations. Quad Cities leaders received some of that information in the last days of May, and the Department of Defense didn’t even allow members of Congress to see the full documentation until June 1.
“The data has been very slow in coming,” Smith said. “They’re using ‘homeland security’ as an excuse” for the delay, he added, but in 1995 less than 10 percent of information was classified.
That’s one reason supporters of the Arsenal have been vague about their strategy. “We really are still researching it,” Hart said. “We have our hunches.”
There’s another reason the Quad City Development Group isn’t touting its plan and its arguments: Other communities are watching, and looking for strategic advantages. Morgan said he’s trying “to keep our strategy somewhat nebulous.” As the Rock Island Arsenal is preparing its case, so is the Detroit Arsenal, he added: “How can we do a building? What are the real costs?”
Hart sounded optimistic about the Quad Cities’ chances. “I think we’ve got a decent chance of reversing some of this,” he said. “Rock Island has a very strong message to send,” Smith said. “There’s a lot there that can be said for Rock Island.”
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