Local Officials Brace For Pentagon Cutbacks

US military will announce fourth round of cutbacks tomorrow

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LIKE public officials and ordinary folk in many parts of America, Texarkana Chamber of Commerce President Robert E. ''Swede'' Lee is bracing for bad news.

Mr. Lee is worried that one of the economic engines in the northeast corner of Texas, the Red River Army Depot, may be among the military bases the Pentagon will recommend for closure or cutbacks tomorrow.

The Red River base, an ammunition storage facility, also houses an armored-vehicle maintenance facility and a supply center. Though it has only 10 soldiers, it employs 4,100 civilians -- about 8 percent of the work force of nearby areas of Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Lee reckons the base contributes $300 million a year, or 15 percent, to the regional economy.

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Across America, towns and cities are anxiously waiting to learn if Defense Secretary William Perry will include their military bases in the nation's fourth round of closures and reductions since 1988.

With prospects growing for a slowdown in the nation's economy, local and state officials are anxious not to lose prime sources of employment and business. And politicians fret about the fallout from the unemployment and business downturns caused by base closings or cutbacks.

For those reasons, federal and state lawmakers, local officials and community boosters have been seeking audiences with Pentagon officials for months to plead the cases for keeping their bases off the chopping block. Many have hired consultants, including former military officers, to promote their causes.

''We've been working hard at it,'' says Lee. ''We had to raise a lot of money, just under $400,000, to hire representation to help us. We've been working for several months with senators and congressmen to get whatever assistance we could.''

Defense Department officials say economic impact is closely considered in selecting bases for closure or cutbacks. But they add that military value and financial savings are higher priorities and insist that lobbying and politics will not influence Secretary Perry's decision.

The closures are part of the US military's post-cold-war shrinkage. The 1995 round is supposed to be the last. But while personnel have been cut by 33 percent, infrastructure has been reduced only 20 percent, raising the prospect of future closures.

Perry's 1995 list will be submitted to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), an independent bipartisan panel. The BRAC begins public hearings on Wednesday and must submit its version of the list to President Clinton by June 1. He must accept or reject the list as a whole and then send it to the Congress, which will have 45 days to approve it.

The base-closure savings are crucial to Perry's plans to raise military pay and boost modernization toward the end of the decade. Pentagon officials say $4.1 billion per year is now being saved from the closures of the 70 major bases and dozens of smaller facilities named in 1988, 1991, and 1993. The closures, which can take up to six years to complete, are expected to save more than $30 billion over 20 years.

Defense officials had originally forecast that this year's list would be bigger than the previous rounds combined. But Perry said earlier this month that the 1995 closures would be fewer than anticipated, and there are expectations there will be fewer than in the 1993 round, in which 35 major bases were ordered closed.

This is because the armed services, anxious to preserve readiness and improve personnel living conditions, have limited funds for the massive ''up-front'' costs of closing bases and cleaning up huge accumulations of toxic wastes and unexploded ammunition. They have to clean up properties before selling them to private interests or turning them over to local communities.

Closure and cleanup costs for the 70 major bases shut in the first three BRAC rounds are put at $15 billion. But a new report by the General Services Administration, a federal government investigative agency, says the Pentagon underestimated the costs by $1.6 billion.

Even so, Pentagon officials say that the 1995 round, which is expected to hit the Navy heaviest, will be large enough to ensure billions of dollars in new savings.

''Some have questioned whether, given that closing a base initially requires, rather than saves, money, the taxpayers actually save as a result. The answer to that question is a resounding 'Yes,''' Joshua Gotbaum, assistant defense secretary for economic security, told a congressional subcommittee last week.

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