Benning: ‘Tough choices’ ahead as civilians may face furloughs

With the U.S. government moving quickly toward automatic budget cuts that kick in this Friday, Fort Benning held a town hall meeting for its civilian workers on Monday, while other federal agencies pondered the impact on their operations.

“There’s no final decision. These are just possible effects,” said Fort Benning public affairs specialist Ric Rosado, explaining that the media wasn’t invited to the town hall session at McGinnis-Wickham Hall, the headquarters for the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Post Public Affairs Officer Gary Jones did issue a statement on the gathering of U.S. Department of Defense workers, who face the possibility of 22 furlough days through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“During this time of defense budget uncertainty, fiscal reality means we will have to make tough choices across the installation as we determine how best to continue to provide world-class training for our soldiers,” said the statement, pointing out that Fort Benning will continue to provide top-notch training and a great quality of life for soldiers and their families.

There are about 4,100 federally funded civilian employees working on the infantry and armor post. About 1,200 handle daily operations as part of the Installation Management Command, while 1,015 connected to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command offer instruction to troops. There are about 1,885 workers combined at various other units and agencies, including the post’s hospital and the U.S. Army Markmanship Unit.

The civilian workers are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, with everyone considered part of the bargaining unit, but only about 900 of them dues-paying members.

“Everybody’s worried, because they don’t know. There’s so much conflicting information going around, nobody can get it straight,” said Bill Lawton, a retired soldier and civil servant who is a vice president with the federation’s office on post.

“I’m sure that it’s going to work out to the better,” he said of the budget impasse referred to as sequestration. “I don’t think it’s going to be tough as everybody thinks.”

Still, other federal agencies are going about making plans should the automatic cuts kick in. About $85 billion would need to be cut from the U.S. budget this year alone should no alternative materialize in Washington, D.C.

“We’re in the planning process right now,” said Frank O’Gara, public affairs officer with the Department of Defense Education Activity. “We’ve submitted our plans and proposals to the defense department, and we can’t really comment on those until those plans are approved for how we’re going to deal with the impact.”

O’Gara said the department that oversees military schools should learn by March 15 what parts of its contingency plans will be accepted, rejected or changed. There are six DoD elementary schools and a middle school at Fort Benning.

Those using Columbus Airport, meanwhile, should not see much of an impact, said airport director Mark Oropeza. The Federal Aviation Administration has air traffic controllers at the facility, but there is no word yet on how or if furloughs will be mandated or if the tower itself might be closed.

Columbus Airport has been identified as one of about 100 airports nationwide and eight in Georgia that have low enough activity that the towers at them might not be needed, Oropeza said. The threshold is about 150,000 takeoffs and landings annually, with Columbus having only about 30,000 each year.

Either way, the local airport would not shut down, the director said. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines both would continue to provide flights into and out of the city using their jet instruments and visually scanning the airfield after landing to avoid other aircraft while taxiing to and from the terminal.

“They’d still fly in,” Oropeza said of the prospect of having no traffic control towers, which it does without overnight as it is. “We would just be classified as an uncontrolled airport. We’re that way anyway 12 hours a day, from 9 in the evening until 9 in the morning.”

There are roughly 65,000 passenger boardings and 65,000 arrivals each year at Columbus Airport.

If the furloughs do kick in and continue through the end of the fiscal year, federal civilian workers would lose about 20 percent of their pay. Soldiers are exempt from the cuts.

The National Federation of Federal Employees is bracing for the worst, said spokesman Cory Bythrow, who has little confidence that Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill will reach an agreement before the budget tumbles into the fiscal crevasse.

“We are, of course, pushing for a deal to be done before,” he said. “These cuts will be devastating for folks. To have 22 furlough days over the remainder of the year for 700,000 DoD employees, that’s a 20 percent pay cut ... We’re not talking trimming around the edges. That’s real money for folks.

“And that’s going to mean real pain, not just at places like Fort Benning and some of the larger Army bases. This is going to reverberate all throughout the country, and all of these communities that rely on these bases for large numbers of jobs.”