Defense cuts would be felt far beyond Fort Benning, officials warn

As the nation barrels toward the so-called fiscal cliff, military officials and community leaders are bracing for deep cuts in defense spending that they say will reverberate far beyond the boundaries of Fort Benning.

If lawmakers are unable to forestall sequestration -- the series of massive budget cuts set to go into effect next year -- the Department of Defense budget would be slashed by some $500 billion over 10 years. That's in addition to $487 billion in reductions already in the works.

The fiscal crisis has cast a pall of uncertainty over the nation's sixth largest installation and the surrounding region that enjoys its economic benefit. The military could be forced to change programs or alter its strategy, but the cuts also could lead to measures like a hiring freeze or furloughs for civilian employees.

"I don't think even the commanding general of Fort Benning knows at this point what's going to happen, and so certainly nobody's going to try to guess," Carmen Cavezza, a former commander at Fort Benning and erstwhile city manager of Columbus, said in an interview. "We know the military is going to get hit very, very hard."

The budget cuts took center stage Monday as elected officials gathered for a Regional Defense Impact Summit at the National Infantry Museum. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Albany, said he remains confident lawmakers will reach a bipartisan agreement before the end of the year, but he added that many details "have yet to be worked out before Congress can put the nation on a sustained path toward deficit reduction, continued job growth and a balanced budget."

"The forecast of a failure of consensus would leave no person in this country untouched," Bishop said. "Enacting sequestration would be devastating to all of our communities, and we must do everything that we can to avert that."

Officials sought to emphasize the budget cuts aren't just a national security issue but a threat to the annual $4.3 billion impact Fort Benning has on the surrounding community. "Any alteration to that obviously is felt," Cavezza said, "and that's really where our concerns lie."

The region still is reaping the benefits of some $3.6 billion spent on Fort Benning since 2006 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure initiative, Cavezza said.

"The federal government, the taxpayers, invested billions of dollars in infrastructure for this base to be the national security gem that it is," Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.

Cavezza, who retired as a lieutenant general, said Fort Benning "is absolutely critical to the national security of our country, and anybody who doesn't know that hasn't been around lately."

"My concerns in the past -- and I've been through a few of these over the years -- is that the first thing that gets hit hard is the training base, and I hope that's not the case now," he added.

Jay Alexander, chair of the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the local business community is holding out hope that lawmakers will "put politics aside" and strike a deal.

"Failure to find that resolution," he said, "would be a major impact on Columbus, our region, the military (installation) at Fort Benning and quite frankly all the way across the nation."