With Pentagon facing cost-cutting pressure, how will Scott AFB fare?

News-DemocratMay 11, 2013 

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A sign welcomes visitors through the Belleville Gate entrance at Scott Air Force Base.

SSGT CHAD R. GANN, USAF — Chad R. Gann, USAF

— This sprawling Air Force base has grown impressively in the decade since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Scott's workforce exploded, turning what was once a quiet military installation into the home of major commands and a $3 billion-per-year engine of the St. Louis region's economy.

But with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts winding down, and growing pressures on the Pentagon to slash costs, how bad will it get as far as job losses at Scott in the years ahead?

In other words, was the layoff of 33 contract workers two weeks ago at the base's Air Force Network Integration Center an isolated incident, or is it a hint of things to come?

No one can answer that question at this point. But metro-east leaders, including its congressional delegation, have promised to do all they can to guard against future job cuts.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, whose district includes Scott, issued a statement in which he said he is closely monitoring staffing concerns at the air base.

"I'm not going to sit idly by and allow enlisted and civilian jobs trickle away 10 or 20 at a time," said Enyart, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

But Enyart's vow will, by any measure, be difficult to fulfill. Huge fiscal pressures weigh on the Department of Defense, which is bearing slightly less than half the $85 billion in federal spending cuts triggered March 1 by the start of the federal sequestration process.

Problems caused by sequestration are only amplifying the $500 billion in cuts the Pentagon is bracing for during the next decade because of provisions contained in the 2012 federal budget. As a result of these cost-cutting goals, the Pentagon has announced that:

* The Air Force intends to use its reduction-in-force authority to meet targets set in its fiscal 2012 budget to cut civilian workforce by 16,000 this year. Through attrition and a hiring freeze, it has so far cut about 15,000 positions. Beginning in August, the Air Force plans to use RIFs to cut the remaining 1,000 jobs across the Air Force. It remains unclear how many of those job cuts will hit Scott.

* In April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that he plans to reduce the Pentagon's civilian workforce by 5 to 6 percent -- almost 50,000 workers -- during the next five years.

* Air Force officials have said the sequestration process that began March 1 forced them to speed up the implementation of efforts to streamline many programs and operations. The same sequestration process will force 4,500 civilian workers at Scott to take 20 unpaid furlough days between this month and September.

If Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal this year, then another sequestration round could occur next year. If that happens, however, Hagel has said he will avoid ordering furloughs. Instead, Hagel announced he will cut personnel costs through the RIF process, according to Meghan Walsh, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Government Employees, one of the unions that represents Scott's civilian workers.

Meanwhile, metro-east leaders continue to draw hope from the fact that the process to determine what military bases to close and keep open -- known as Base Realignment And Closure, or BRAC -- isn't set to begin until 2015, and even that is a long-shot in view of the strong congressional opposition taking shape against another BRAC round.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, the Senate's No. 2 leader, expressed skepticism of the BRAC process.

"I've watched five base closure commissions. I want to see actual savings -- start to finish -- when you're closing a base; moving the personnel; moving the equipment; reassigning and then assessing how much money you've saved as a result of it," Durbin said during a hearing before the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs.

Durbin said during the hearing that the Pentagon could save money not by closing bases but by examining the money spent on for-profit schools and costly weapons programs, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, which is $164 billion over-budget and seven years late in the delivery of the next-generation fighter.

The loss of 33 civilian contractor jobs at Scott's Air Force Network Integration Center on April 30, which occurred when the Air Force allowed a contract to expire with a firm named Pragmatics Inc., could result in the loss of an unspecified number of support positions for those workers.

Col. Brenda L. Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space Command, in Colorado Springs, Colo., which took over the work once done by the 33 workers let go at Scott, declined to say how many support positions will be lost at Scott.

"Due to reduced spending, there will continue to be impacts through the end of the fiscal year," Campbell said in a statement. "The details surrounding these decisions will be released as they become available."

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, expressed optimism that further job cuts can be averted at Scott. Achieving this goal, though, will require cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as the willingness of President Barack Obama to reach a deal, according to Davis.

"Well, it's up to us to try, and we're going to continue to try and we won't know the final result until we see the final drawdown in Afghanistan, and we see drawdowns in other overseas missions," Davis said. "And then we can get a better handle on what to expect. And until then it's difficult to deal with hypotheticals."

The budget sequester, which took effect March 1, aims to cut $85 billion from the federal budget between now and Sept. 30. About half the cuts, or more than $42 billion, will come from defense programs.

The sequester stems from an August 2011 deal between President Barack Obama and Congress concerning efforts to lift the federal government's debt ceiling while seeking ways to trim the nation's $16 trillion public debt.

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