A new U.S. Army assessment is calling for cutting nearly 11,000 military and civilian jobs at Fort Benning by the year 2020, with the total job loss in the region — on and off post — estimated at just under 14,000.
The report and its recommendations was released Thursday by the U.S. Department of the Army’s Environmental Command at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. The branch stressed no final decisions have been made on the actual number of cuts, which are required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
“Nearly all Army installations will be affected in some way by additional reductions,” the Army said.
The precise number of jobs the Army assessment said should be eliminated at Fort Benning is 10,767. That breaks down to 9,493 soldiers and 1,274 civil service positions. On top of that, another 1,173 defense contract service jobs would be lost, according to the assessment.
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There are currently 31,342 active-duty soldiers assigned to Fort Benning, with 4,216 federal civil servants and 2,044 defense contract workers, said Gary Jones, executive vice president of military affairs with the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. That doesn’t include roughly 10,000 soldiers training on post on any given day.
“Our citizens need to know how serious of a threat this is to our community, and it’s really the broader Chattahoochee Valley community,” Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said of the potential devastating impact on the region.
She said a “Fort Benning Partnership” initiative has already been launched in anticipation of the review’s recommendations and that area officials are ready to go on the offensive to let local residents, federal lawmakers and military leaders know the value of keeping Fort Benning intact, if not adding other activities, missions and personnel.
Impact numbers from the assessment for Columbus and the surrounding region indicate 1,918 jobs in the local economy would vanish as business demand takes a hit from the cuts. That would bring the total possible job loss on and off post to 13,858, the assessment said.
Counting family members, the population could fall by 27,111 individuals should all of the job cuts occur, it said.
Waddell Realty managing partner Reynolds Bickerstaff said any dip in the Fort Benning workforce would likely send a huge chill through the local economy, impacting all businesses, but the home sales and rental markets in particular.
“Think about all the soldiers that purchased four or five years ago, that now can’t sell their house and are renting to other active-duty military,” he said. “You could be talking about 2,000 to 3,000 houses on the rental market that we can’t rent.”
Such a scenario — not being able to sell or rent a property — could lead to military homeowners walking away from them, thus creating a wave of foreclosures. That, naturally, would generate anxiety in the overall real-estate sector just as it is now beginning to pick up momentum, he said.
“We went through that with BRAC, with all of the overbuilding and speculation,” Bickerstaff said. “I think this could be the reverse effect, with people not doing anything because of the (job loss) speculation.”
In dollar figures, the Army assessment estimated if all of the job cuts become reality, there would be a loss of $627 million in income in the region, along with lost business sales of $727.9 million. Those numbers would ripple down to potential lost tax revenue in the region ranging between $8.1 million and $9.9 million. The total impact: Just over $1.36 billion.
“When people say government jobs aren’t important and they don’t create economic value, this proves that nothing could be further from the truth,” Tomlinson said.
The Army said a public comment period has now begun and will run until Aug. 25. The Columbus chamber said Friday that residents and businesses in the local area should voice their thoughts on the matter.
“Now is the time for you to take action by communicating your thoughts, concerns and opinions,” said Jones, who explained Columbus-area officials and business leaders have been talking for some time with elected officials in Georgia, Alabama and Washington, D.C., about the potential job and population losses.
“We’re telling our story and we’re making sure they understand the Fort Benning story and how it impacts two states and 10 counties, actually about 19 counties if you look at the total military retiree perspective,” he said.
The U.S. military has been downsizing overall following the end of the Iraq war and with the war in Afghanistan now winding down. Training loads at Fort Benning also have been falling over the last two years.
The latest Army assessment follows one that led to Fort Benning actually gaining about 60 jobs out of the process a year ago, with Fort Stewart, near Savannah in southeast Georgia, losing an entire brigade. That came with the branch reducing its active-duty ranks from 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers.
In last year’s downsizing process, scheduled for completion by September 2015, Fort Benning’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team escaped unscathed. But the 4,100-soldier war-fighting unit remains in the budget-cutting crosshairs, Jones said.
“The 3rd Brigade is one of the entities that is being looked at,” he said of the unit, which operates with about 150 contract civilians who perform maintenance, dining facility and supply chores.
Part of the successful strategy by area leaders the last time was hammering home the fact that the U.S. taxpayers already have invested more than $3.5 billion at Fort Benning, much of that construction leading up to the relocation of the U.S. Army Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to here. It and the Infantry School form what is called the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
Local leaders also stressed that Columbus and the surrounding region had spent about $3.2 billion in public and private money to prepare for a population increase from the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) process in 2005 that mandated the Armor School be operating here by September 2011. That spending was on schools, roads, utilities, water lines and other infrastructure.
“We need to understand as taxpayers that we have already invested in this, and we need return on that investment,” Tomlinson said. “And to reduce in any significant form the volume of personnel resources that we have at Fort Benning is not getting a return on that investment we have already made.”
The current cutbacks are aimed at slicing another 70,000 troops from the Army’s ranks, leaving it at 420,000 unless lawmakers and Department of Defense leaders decide otherwise. But Jones said another BRAC round is a certainty as the U.S. seeks to close unneeded military installations.
Aside from Fort Benning, the latest assessment includes the Georgia posts Fort Stewart and Fort Gordon, the latter in Augusta. Altogether, there are 30 U.S. Army installations in the current downsizing review.
Public comments about the proposed workforce reduction should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or sent via mail to: U. S. Army Environmental Command, Attn: SPEA Public Comments, 2450 Connell Road (Bldg. 2264), Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, 78234-7664.
The official name for the current Army budget review is “Supplemental Environmental Programmatic Assessment.”
The list of installations identified for potential cuts includes Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Gordon, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Lee, Va.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii/Schofield Barracks; Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Fort Belvoir, Va.; Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Meade, Md.; Fort Rucker, Ala.; Joint Base San Antonio/Fort Sam Houston, Texas; and U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii/Fort Shafter.