Rumors of base closings strike fear in Md. towns

Military budget woes could cost local jobs

March 22, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Again there is talk in Washington of closing military bases, the kind of talk that scares Harford County Executive James M. Harkins and other officials who fear the job-rich facilities in their communities will face the budget ax.

"It sends chills down my spine," said Harkins. "It sends shock waves through the business community."

Harkins is worried about one possible target, Aberdeen Proving Ground, the No. 1 employer in his county, which provides jobs for 15,000 civilian and military personnel, and pumps $520 million a year into Harford's economy.

There are similar worries in St. Mary's and Charles counties, where a majority of workers pick up a paycheck at a military base. County officials are "very concerned" about the possibility of closings, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who represents the area.

Such fears appear premature, as decisions on base closures are at least two years away. But there's no question that President Bush and some congressional leaders favor closings.

The president, in his budget blueprint for next year, said "it is clear that new rounds of base closures will be necessary" to free up Pentagon funds for new weaponry, training and the creation of a high-tech force for the 21st century. The Pentagon has 23 percent more bases and military facilities than it needs, the budget plan said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is pressing for two rounds of base closings, in 2003 and 2005.

"Every dollar we spend on bases we do not need is a dollar we cannot spend on training our troops ... replacing old weapons systems and advancing our military technology," McCain said when he introduced legislation this month.

It is too early to say which bases or how many could be closed or trimmed - "realigned" in the jargon of Pentagon budget-cutters. Those decisions would be made in a long and cumbersome process that involves the military services and an independent base-closing commission set up by Congress. Bush and the Congress would then have to endorse the panel's recommendations.

An uphill battle

But even Capitol Hill proponents of base closings say winning the approval of lawmakers will be difficult.

"I think we've got a decent chance in the Senate and an uphill battle in the House," said one Senate staff member. Because the House has to stand for re-election every two years, the staff member said, members are less likely to favor the politically risky step of cutting bases in their districts.

Hoyer agreed that there's little enthusiasm among colleagues for closing military facilities.

"I'm not in favor ... at this point," Hoyer said. He said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "really has to make the case" that the military can't meet its budget without closing bases.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, does not support the closing of any military facilities, Senate staffers said. They say base-closing legislation might not come up for a vote until next year, when the Bush administration proposes a 2003 Pentagon budget that will take its cue from Rumsfeld's review of defense spending and military priorities.

Senate leaders might then agree to one round of base closings, aimed at facilities such as laboratories, test sites and depots where the military has shown clear excess, a Senate staff member said, "if it happens at all."

The most recent round of base closings, in 1995, hit Maryland hard. Fort Ritchie in Frederick County was axed, resulting in the loss of 600 jobs in Western Maryland. Another 500 jobs were sacrificed when the Naval Surface Warfare Centers in Annapolis and Montgomery County were shuttered.

But Aberdeen Proving Ground gained more than 100 military and civilian jobs when a chemical/biological research program was transferred from Utah in 1995.

"In previous rounds we were a gainer," said George Mercer, a spokesman for Aberdeen Proving Ground. "I think APG is going to be here for a long time."

Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center, in Charles County, survived intact, while Patuxent River Naval Air Station, in St. Mary's, gained hundreds of jobs when a facility closed in Pennsylvania. Fort Meade, one of the largest employers in Anne Arundel County, also picked up hundreds of jobs when other military bases were trimmed.

Aberdeen Proving Ground

Mercer said Aberdeen Proving Ground has unique Army facilities that could shield it from major cutbacks. The U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command conducts research and tests equipment and antidotes to fight the growing threats. The Developmental Test Command evaluates everything from rifles to tanks, and oversees similar test sites around the nation.

Still, with 59 separate commands and functions on the base and other Maryland military facilities already feeling the pinch of reductions, Aberdeen could face cutbacks, particularly with Pentagon officials saying they have too many labs and test sites.

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