Benning’s budget risk: Imagine if Aflac, Columbus State and TSYS jobs vanished

Soldiers in the 3rd Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division carry out a combat exercise in a mock Iraqi village during the 3rd HBCT Hammer Focus training at Fort Benning. The 3rd Brigade was inactivated this year at Fort Benning.
Soldiers in the 3rd Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division carry out a combat exercise in a mock Iraqi village during the 3rd HBCT Hammer Focus training at Fort Benning. The 3rd Brigade was inactivated this year at Fort Benning. Columbus

It was a simple sentence tossed out as part of a three-hour presentation about how Columbus leadership is working to defend Fort Benning from future federal budget cuts that they expect are not an “if” possibility, but “when.”

“Can you imagine if all of a sudden we lost all of the employees of Aflac and Columbus State University and Total Systems in Muscogee County?” said Gary Jones, the executive vice president responsible for keeping track of government and military affairs at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

That’s how Jones — at the behest of former chamber chairman Troy Woods, the CEO of TSYS — set about making the impact of future cuts of military personnel and contractors “personal” as the likelihood of a future Base Realignment and Closure round grows, and sooner rather than later.

Don’t even consider the human impact of taking people out of the area who would have volunteered or served on various community boards or simply helped out a neighbor in need. In pure numbers, the loss would be profound for the local economy.

The PowerPoint slide on the wall at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center auditorium showed Aflac’s roughly 3,670 employees here, at an average salary of nearly $61,000 apiece, contributing more than $223 million in salaries and buying power. TSYS, or Total System Services, and its nearly 4,700 staffers, earning about the same per year on average, amount to a nearly $286 million impact. Columbus State, with its nearly 1,400 employees and average $45,500 annual salary, would be valued at more than $61 million in impact.

The grand total for the three revered major employers: A loss of 9,722 jobs, with total salaries and buying power of just over $571 million disappearing.

That impact would “be less than what’s going to happen at Fort Benning,” Jones said of a “sequestration” comparison between the three major employers here and potential budget cuts that would likely occur if the U.S. Army reduces the size of its force from 450,000 soldiers to 420,000 under mandated cuts that could be discussed in the next fiscal year after the presidential election. Thus far, the Army has already been cut from 570,000 troops in recent years.

The projections show further cuts to 420,000 troops could take away 9,493 soldiers and 4,366 civilian employees from Fort Benning. Average salaries and buying power taken away from the local community would total $627 million. That would be more than 4,100 additional jobs and nearly $56 million more in economic impact lost than if the three Columbus civilian employers simply vanished, the slide showed.

(Act fast and don’t assume Fort Benning is safe, BRAC expert tells Georgia lawmakers)

That’s also on top of the 3,400 soldier positions lost in the previous round of cuts at Fort Benning that eliminated the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, and roughly $427 million in salaries and buying power. There was some relief in the previous sequestration cuts, with a 1,050-soldier, battalion-sized rapid reaction task force created and still based on the local installation, with its economic impact of just under $93 million.

“We’ve had leaders who understood that you don’t wait until there’s a problem to fix it,” Brian Anderson, chamber president and chief executive officer, told members of the Georgia House Military Affairs Study Committee at the museum during an overview of what the Columbus-Chattahoochee Valley region is doing to be proactive about defending its turf, namely Fort Benning.

“We just eliminated about $400,000 in our chamber overhead to make sure we are able to do the job we’re asked to do, especially around something like defense,” Anderson said of the effort by local leaders to get out in front of future budget cuts, whether they be a BRAC round or something else. He said the area is spending between $300,000 and $500,000 on expert consultants connected to Washington, D.C., and Pentagon decision-makers to do just that.

He asked that Georgia lawmakers consider allocating resources for all military communities across the state to prepare bases for future budget cuts. The Columbus region, naturally, would like additional money for its efforts as well to make certain a nearly $5 billion Fort Benning impact does not get smaller.

“We probably could do it alone, because we have to,” Anderson told legislators. “We cannot afford to not have $5 billion (in our economy). Let me put it into perspective. You may think, (with) $5 billion, you’re fortunate. We are, but it also means we lost $800 million (from previous cuts) and it’s now being felt on the streets. We have less kids going to college. We’ve got less cars being sold.”

As it now stands, 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 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.

The military post pays out roughly $110 million a month in salaries or $1.32 billion a year. Regional contracts connected to the post total about $250 million a month or $3 billion annually.

No schedule has been laid out for the next Base Realignment and Closure process, but some expect it could occur sometime between fiscal years 2019 and 2021.

“I would also strongly recommend that you not assume you’re safe, that you not assume that Fort Benning is safe,” Tony Principi, head of The Principi Group, a consulting company working with the Matrix Design Group to assist the Greater Columbus of Commerce, told the Georgia House committee.

The stakes are high, he stressed, when it comes to budget cutters looking to balance the nation’s finances amid a changing U.S. military and mission.

“Assume that every base in the state of Georgia is at risk,” he said. “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.”