Maryland Can't Escape Base Closings Any More, But It Fights for Fort Ritchie


Feel for the people of Cascade, the tiny Western Maryland community in the Catoctin Mountains, near the Pennsylvania border, who, if the Pentagon has its way, are about to see their economic lifeblood drain away with the proposed closure of the local Army base at Fort Ritchie.

It is one of five military installations tagged to close their gates in Maryland in the fourth round of military base closures since the end of the Cold War.

Maryland also stands to lose the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak; the Army Publications Distribution Center in Middle River; and the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda.

Until this round, Maryland had escaped virtually unscathed from the previous military shutdowns in 1988, 1991 and 1993. The state actually gained 1,700 jobs statewide as duties and missions were transferred here from bases closed elsewhere.

This year's fingering of five state installations will cost the state, after employment gains at some other local bases are discounted, 1,211 local civilian employees of the Defense Department and thousands of contract and service workers in surrounding communities. Another 481 military slots in the state are also at stake.

The Pentagon's hit list is now being scrutinized by the independent base closure commission, which can endorse or alter the list by adding bases to it or taking them off. Affected communities, such as Cascade, will have an opportunity to make their cases to the commission for keeping bases operating.

On Friday, Alton Cornella, a member of the commission, toured Fort Ritchie to get a first-hand impression of whether the base should be closed, and heard from three Maryland members of Congress -- Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Republican who represents Western Maryland -- why it should be kept open.

"Fort Ritchie has a strong case, based on merit, mission and value to the nation," said Ms. Mikulski.

Tomorrow, Commissioner Rebecca Cox will be at the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Annapolis and White Oak, reviewing their claims to survival.

But how do bases get put on the list in the first place? And why?

The second question is simpler than the first to answer: Since the Cold War started to thaw in the mid-1980s, the United States has reduced the overall size of its military by about one-third, so ,, that it no longer needs so many bases, depots or research facilities to house the services and their operations.

The base closures are meant to bring the manpower and infrastructure levels into closer balance. Since 1988 about 400 .. military installations, or about one-fifth of the military's infrastructure, have been closed or had their functions reorganized. This year's round will add another 146 facilities.

This still leaves the Pentagon with more bases than it needs, a real estate surplus that is expensive to maintain but which is becoming increasingly difficult to reduce as the Pentagon runs out of easy choices.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry would like another round of closures in three or four years, but he acknowledges that Congress, which must approve any list, may not have the political fortitude to bear more of the inevitable pain.

"Now when a community discovers its base is at risk, I don't need to tell you that emotions can run very high," Mr. Perry told the National Association of Counties this month. "The immediate reaction is to fight the impending closure. We understand and we respect this reaction, but as a potential partner with you in base reuse, we urge you to hedge your bet.

"Fight the closure if you must, but be prepared for closure -- just in case."

In the previous base closure rounds, 85 percent of the Pentagon's original selections were upheld by the commission. Fort Ritchie, statistically, has slim chance of escaping the ax.

This brings us to how the bases are selected for closure. Here, three fundamental judgments come into play: the installation's military value; the savings that closure would produce; and the economic impact on the local community.

These three criteria are first weighed by the service chiefs in drawing up their original recommendations. This list then goes for review to Mr. Perry. This year he accepted, without deletion or addition, the lists prepared for him by the services, forwarding them to the commission.

In doing so he made several points:

* This year's proposals were not as large as he first planned because before any savings can be achieved, closing a base actually costs money. The up-front costs for this year's round are estimated to be $3.8 billion, little more than half the $6.9 billion initial cost of the previous base closure round in 1993, but still a significant sum from a strained budget.

"This is about as big a lump as we could swallow at this stage," said Mr. Perry.

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