States Make Pitch to Save Bases From Being Closed

FOLKS in Ogden, Utah, are fighting the possible closure of two local Air Force bases with all the zeal of a Navy SEAL. In fact, a retired general is directing the effort, which includes full-page advertisements in a Washington-area newspaper.

"Military value, military value, military value," extols one ad, promoting what local boosters consider the bases' paramount virtue.

The pitch was placed in Roll Call, a journal that keeps tabs on Capitol Hill. But it was not aimed specifically at Congress. Instead, it was a last-minute attempt to pressure the eight-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).

The panel today begins voting on its 1995 list of bases to be padlocked or reduced as part of the US military's post-cold-war "downsizing." Its votes could well have the most far-reaching impact on ordinary Americans of any defense-related decision this year.

At stake are tens of thousands of jobs in scores of communities that depend on military bases for their economic well-being.

The panel's decisions also carry potential political fallout. Politicians blamed for failing to keep their bases off the hit list could pay in 1996 elections.

Scheduled to last through Sunday, the panel's hearings will be the fourth BRAC selection since 1988. BRAC also identified bases to close in 1991, and 1993.

Utah's Ogden Air Logistics Center and the Hill Air Force Base are among 177 facilities on the commission's tentative hit list.

And the commission's list is final. To avoid political favoritism, it must be accepted or rejected in full by President Clinton and then by Congress. Consequently, state and local officials have mounted costly, high-profile campaigns to save their bases.

Many recruited former military officers to argue the merits of their facilities in 29 public hearings the commission held over four months. For two days last week, BRAC gave more than 200 members of Congress five minutes each to make their final cases.

"Every senator, every congressman, every governor, and every mayor around the country has been calling me to ask not to close bases," complains BRAC Chairman Alan Dixon, a former Democratic senator from Illinois. "This is the worst job I've ever had."

A rock and a hard place

In an interview, Mr. Dixon says his panel faces a painful dilemma: Since 1986, defense spending has dropped by 40 percent and military personnel have been cut by 33 percent.

But the 164 facilities tapped for closure in the first three BRAC rounds and the 177 bases the commission is now eying only total 21 percent of the country's defense infrastructure.

"The cuts [in the defense budget] have been made, and yet everybody says 'Don't close my base,' " Dixon says.

After months of internal study and debate, the Pentagon on Feb. 28 recommended the closure or realignment of 146 military bases in 34 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

Thirty-three were described as major closures. Defense Secretary William Perry estimated the savings could total $18.4 billion over 20 years.

The commission, however, decided the Pentagon had not gone far enough and added 31 facilities to its tentative list. That did not mean all were doomed. But the additions gave the panel the option of making deeper reductions if it decides they are needed.

Dixon declined to discuss his panel's deliberations, insisting that "the numbers are still being crunched."

Even so, the commissioners' comments at public hearings have stirred intense speculation about the fates of some facilities. Among these are the Air Force's five aircraft-maintenance depots, which include Ogden.

The others are Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma; Kelly Air Force Base, in Texas; McClellan Air Force Base, in California; and Robins Air Force Base, in Georgia.

By the Air Force's own admission, closing all five would still leave a massive amount of excess maintenance capacity. Still, the Pentagon accepted the Air Force's recommendation that the facilities only be reduced. They rationalized that it would cost more to shut a depot than keep it open. And the funds might have to come from readiness and modernization.

But closings are likely

But in hearings last week, commissioners indicated they held a different view. "We have to take a good, serious look at whether we close one or two depots," said Commissioner Josue Robles Jr., a former director of the Army budget.

Fears that the ax could fall on Ogden, of which the Hill F-16 fighter base is part, prompted the placing of the Roll Call advertisement by Hill/DDO Inc., a group of local officials and businessmen who have waged a lengthy campaign to preserve the facilities.

Michael Pavich, a retired Air Force general and Utah official who works with Hill/DDO, says the closure of Ogden and Hill would devastate Utah's economy.

They provide direct and indirect work to 25,000 people and generate annual payrolls of $570 million. They also bring more outside dollars into Utah than does any other employer in the state.

"The impact [of closing the bases] would be in the vicinity of $2 billion," Mr. Pavich says.

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