Sequester budget creates uncertainty, worry in Texas military communities

Posted Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The federal budget ax is poised to chop $46 billion from defense spending, and communities around Texas military bases are bracing for the impact.

Automatic budget cuts that could start Friday would furlough 52,000 civilian Defense Department employees and cause $275 million in lost gross annual pay in Texas, according to White House projections.

The Army said its reductions could result in a $2.4 billion economic loss in Texas.

Some Republicans question whether President Barack Obama and the Pentagon have overstated the effects of the budget sequester, but leaders in military communities say they expect fallout.

"There is a lot of uncertainty right now, and that always causes concern," said John Crutchfield, president of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, which sits next to Fort Hood. "Many of the people stationed at the base live in our community, so when something happens to them, it is felt in the community."

Texas, Virginia and California are among the states that experts say could feel the biggest sting from defense cuts. Texas has 131,548 active military personnel, the most in the country, according to census data. It has 48,057 civilian personnel, behind only Virginia and California.

Former Army Secretary Pete Geren said that in the short term, the cuts will fall most heavily on the military's training and quality-of-life budgets.

In Texas, those reductions will be most noticeable at large training bases like Fort Hood, Fort Bliss in El Paso and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

"However, the real problem with this unpredictable funding process is you just can't plan," said Geren, now president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth. "Military leaders don't know not only how much money they are gong to have, but when will they have it? It just injects chaos into the system."

Blue Angels grounded?

At Naval Air Station Fort Worth, almost 2,200 civilian workers face possible furloughs.

And a planned appearance in October by the Blue Angels at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show may be canceled, according to a Navy report.

At least one major air show has already been canceled because of budget cuts.

Potential fleetwide actions include canceled or delayed deployments and reductions in training programs and investments in ships, aircraft and weapons, Navy documents say.

Fort Worth Councilman Dennis Shingleton said that, judging from discussions with base leadership, he doesn't believe that reductions at the naval air station would have an immediate effect on the city.

Should the budget changes lead to talk of base realignments or closings, he said, his concern would rise dramatically.

"I haven't heard any official word that there is" talk of realignment, said Shingleton, whose district includes the base.

"But I tell you that if there is any hint of that, we would absolutely mobilize to make our argument for the joint reserve base, which is integral to the economic continuance and solvency of this community."

'It's going to hurt'

The Red River Army Depot in Northeast Texas could see a $597 million reduction, a cut that local leaders say would directly affect their communities.

Mayor Mike Baab said business owners in Hooks, a town of 2,800 that borders the depot, expect less traffic to and from the depot.

"It's going to hurt," Baab said. "It will affect us economically for sure because when people travel to Red River, they stop at our eating places and truck stops for lunch. I imagine our sales tax revenue will go down."

At Fort Hood, warnings about furloughs, downsizing and service reductions were shared with civilian employees and their families at town hall meetings.

Fort Hood has about 6,000 civilian employees who would face losing up to 16 hours from their paychecks every two weeks, said Cheryl Eliano, local chapter president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

A hiring freeze has already left more than 100 jobs unfilled, and sequestration would further strain staffing, she said.

"We have a lot of angry and upset folks right now," she said. "Some people are wondering how they are going to make it."

Crutchfield, the president of the Killeen chamber, said that despite community concerns, the area may be somewhat protected by Fort Hood's size and diversity.

The post has many missions and numerous commands, so the cuts may cause less trauma there than at an Army depot with a narrower purpose.

Fort Hood's annual economic impact on the state is $25 billion, and much of that occurs in surrounding Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties, Crutchfield said.

Use common sense

The Killeen business community generally agrees that the size of the government should shrink, but that process should involve logic and common sense, Crutchfield said.

"Cutting DOD expenditures 10 percent across the board is kind of tying the hands of commanding generals, who know how to defend the country," he said. "We've got a three-star general who is a smart guy and knows how to do this, but he's not allowed to use his judgment to decide what to cut."

Jim Riddlesperger, political science professor at Texas Christian University, said sequestration should be viewed as a process rather than a deadline.

"The thing to understand is that the impact may not be felt immediately because it takes time for people's budgets to be constricted," Riddlesperger said.

"Therefore, Congress has several opportunities to correct the imbalances that may take place with the cuts. Odds are that even if we get to sequestration -- and there is some indication we will -- many of the problems will be corrected in the weeks and months to come."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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