Those with the job of protecting Fort Benning from future budget cuts need not procrastinate. And the Columbus area should not assume the military installation is safe.
In fact, it will likely be dog-eat-dog among states as the next federal base closure round begins sometime within the next few years.
Those stark assertions framed a public presentation and discussion Tuesday morning at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, with a panel of state legislators dubbed the Georgia House Military Affairs Study Committee listening to the overview led by the Great Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Dave Belton, was created in early March, with members now visiting communities around the state to gauge what is needed to help Georgia avoid extremely painful losses that are expected to be doled out when the next Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process occurs. No schedule has been laid out, but some expect it will occur sometime between fiscal years 2019 and 2021.
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That doesn’t include possible sequestration cuts already on the table that could impact the Army and other military branches in the coming year. Fort Benning lost about 3,400 military positions in the form of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, although it was able to keep a 1,050-person battalion task force at Kelley Hill, where the brigade was housed for years.
“It’s critically important that you do everything possible, as you’re doing, in advance of the next BRAC round and before that list comes out, before that list is made public, to protect, preserve and enhance your military installations,” said Anthony “Tony” Principi, head of The Principi Group, a consulting company working with the Matrix Design Group to assist the Greater Columbus of Commerce with its strategy of averting cuts locally.
“Once that list comes out, you can make improvements, but it’s not going to count whether your base stays open or closes,” said Principi, a former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and chairman of the 2005 BRAC round that brought the U.S. Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning to form the Maneuver Center of Excellence alongside the Infantry School.
“The history of the previous four BRAC rounds also reveals to you that if an installation in your state makes the Defense Department’s list of closure or realignment, there’s an 85 percent chance your base is going to be closed or realigned,” he said. “So your key is to stay off the list.”
Principi said the current climate within the federal government has become more about cost savings, with excess infrastructure a big target for budget cutters. That’s why the Columbus area and other cities around Georgia should start doing everything they can now to demonstrate their value to the military and its evolving missions. School systems, utility systems, affordable housing and other criteria could have a significant impact on decision makers, he said.
“I would also strongly recommend that you not assume you’re safe, that you not assume that Fort Benning is safe,” the consultant told the lawmakers. “Assume that every base in the state of Georgia is at risk. I’ve seen bases in 2005 where hundreds of millions of dollars were invested by the taxpayer, and those bases were on the list for closure or major realignment. So it could happen anywhere.”
Fort Benning currently supports about 11,140 permanent-party military personnel, nearly 34,000 family members, just under 11,000 civilian workers and a weekly average of nearly 17,000 military trainees, according to a presentation by Gary Jones, executive vice president of government and military affairs at the chamber. Its fiscal year 2016 training load is expected to finish up at about 68,000, then dip by nearly 2,000 people trained in FY2017.
Fort Benning pays out roughly $110 million a month in salaries or $1.32 billion a year, Jones said. Regional contracts connected to the post total about $250 million a month or $3 billion annually.
“The bottom line is Fort Benning’s big. It’s got about 40,000 folks out there. There’s a lot of money that goes out there. It’s a big, big city,” said Jones, explaining the total economic impact of the installation now is about $4.75 billion when business sales and salaries paid to employees in the surrounding region are included.
Aside from Belton, other Georgia House members on the committee are Rep. Calvin Smyre and Rep. Richard Smith, who represent the Columbus area, as well as Rep. Shaw Blackmon, Rep. Mike Glanton, Rep. John Carson, Rep. Bill Hitchens, Rep. Mike Cheokas, Rep. Brian Prince, Rep. David Clark, Rep. Ed Rynders, Rep. Heath Clark, Rep. John Corbett, Rep. Darryl Ealum and Rep. Al Williams.
Georgia’s U.S. military installations and organizations include Fort Benning, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Fort Gordon, Marine Corps Logistics Base, Moddy Air Force Base, Robins Air Force Base, Fort Steward and Hunter Army Air Field, Georgia Department of Defense and Kings Bay Submarine Base. Principi told the legislators that he has heard that another state has targeted the submarine installation’s assets in hopes of absorbing them during a future BRAC round. He did not say which state.
A couple of special moments during the gathering was the presentation of Spirit of Enterprise Awards by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., both who represent the interests of the Columbus area in Washington.