Illinois officials ready to fight for jobs targeted by Pentagon

Sunday, June 19, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Springfield's mayor envisions thousands of people waving signs and flags in a show of support for the 183rd Fighter Wing on Monday when a member of the federal base closings commission tours the local Air National Guard base.

"This will be a very important day for the economic well-being of Springfield," Mayor Timothy Davlin said, well aware that appealing to the commission may be the base's best hope for keeping 163 positions that the Pentagon wants to move to Indiana.

Jobs are the bottom line as officials across Illinois dig in to save more than 2,700 positions that would be moved out of state under the Pentagon's latest plan to trim costs and tailor its military bases for the war on terrorism.

Yet, jobs will muster just a mention later Monday in St. Louis when state and local officials get their only face-to-face meeting with three other members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which will review the Pentagon's proposal and then send its own recommendations to President Bush.

"The job losses hurt every community, not just Illinois. You don't want to tell them things they already know," Davlin said.

Instead, the Illinois delegation, led by U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin and Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, will zero in on the military value of the state's bases. They also will argue that the Pentagon's logic was flawed when it included the bases among closings and realignments projected to save up to $7 billion annually.

Military analysts say those security-based arguments are the only hope of swaying the commission, which historically has modified only about 15 percent of the Pentagon's recommendations.

"What they need to prove is there's not a good reason to hurt their community because there is no net savings and that the military would actually be losing net value instead of gaining it," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank.

Illinois officials say they won't lay down all their cards until Monday's hearing, one of more than a dozen planned around the country by the nine-member commission.

But they question the cost savings of proposals such as uprooting the Rock Island Arsenal's Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, or TACOM, to shift most of the jobs to the unit's division headquarters in Warren, Mich. The move accounts for about 1,100 of the 1,263 jobs targeted at the arsenal, an island in the Mississippi River with more than 6,500 employees.

Quad City officials contend that the cost of building new offices and parking for TACOM in suburban Detroit and training new staff would whittle away the savings envisioned by the Pentagon.

"The goal here is to save taxpayers' money. We'll be showing in some cases that not only are there no cost savings but actually costs associated with the moves," said Thom Hart, president of the Quad City Economic Development Group.

Obama said there are other signs that the Pentagon's recommendations are off base, such as moving fighter jets out of Springfield, which he contends is more centrally located than their proposed future home, Fort Wayne, Ind., and could better respond to terrorist attacks.

Blagojevich will point to "military friendly" initiatives enacted over the last few years in Illinois, including tuition benefits for all soldiers stationed in the state and increased death benefits for the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said spokesman Andrew Ross.

"This is obviously an uphill battle, but this is a critical opportunity for us," Obama said.

Illinois officials will have just 2 1/2 hours to make their case, sharing part of that time with neighboring Iowa as three BRAC commissioners gather input on closing and realignment proposals affecting seven Midwestern states.

They plan to highlight the reams of paperwork being turned over to the commission about the bases in Rock Island, Springfield and the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command in North Chicago, which would lose more than 2,000 jobs, most of them military positions.

Springfield officials will start at the Air National Guard base early Monday with BRAC commissioner Sam Skinner, an Illinois native who earlier visited the state's other targeted facilities, then they will jet to St. Louis for the public hearing.

Davlin has been urging residents to greet Skinner with homemade signs and flags to show the community's support for the 183rd Fighter Wing, which has 355 full-time and 774 part-time employees. Economically, the base pumps an estimated $44.7 million into the region each year.

Jack Spencer, senior policy analyst for defense and national security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said communities would be better served spending their time and money on replacing lost base jobs "rather than fighting the inevitable."

"The hearings are letting politicians grandstand for a future that's not going to come. They should be facilitating meetings with communities that have successfully recovered from closings and realignments. That's how you serve not only your constituents but your country," Spencer said.

But the Lexington Institute's Thompson disagreed. He said the latest BRAC commission is loaded with military experts "who aren't much impressed with Pentagon bureaucrats" and will be more independent than earlier panels.

"If a community is really convinced that the Pentagon missed something about a base, they should put all of their energy into saving it because they very well could," Thompson said.


On the Net:

Base Realignment and Closure Commission: http://www.defenselink.mil/brac/

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