Wednesday’s announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the Pentagon is prepared to furlough Department of Defense civilian personnel drew strong reactions from local and state leaders, while military leaders at Fort Stewart said they’ll continue to prepare for budget cuts.
“Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield, being a good steward of our taxpayers’ dollars, has already taken numerous measures over the past two years in the face of budgetary uncertainty,” said Kevin Larson, chief of public communications at Fort Stewart. “We have conducted and continue to conduct detailed planning for reduced budgets under fiscal uncertainty.”
Larson listed several measures the installation has taken in the past two years to reduce costs while still supporting combat missions in
Afghanistan. These measures include:
• Curtailed civilian professional development training and education. • Cut credit-card purchases from $5.7 million to $2 million. (Currently, the Stewart-Hunter deputy commander is the sole approving authority for all overtime, travel, awards and credit-card purchases.)
• Cut temporary-duty travel from $1.1 million to $282,000.
• Cut general services administration vehicles from $5.1 million to $3.3 million.
• Cut custodial services from $3.8 million to $2.2 million.
• Cut utilities from $19.4 million to $17 million.
• Reduced workforce by 86 civilian personnel in the past five months using normal attrition and early retirements. (Stewart-Hunter Garrison civilian strength is at 993 today and heading down to 901 by the end of the fiscal year through attrition and early retirements.)
• Eliminated and/or reduced overtime except in situations requiring critical missions affecting life, health or safety issues.
• Installation Management Command-imposed greater restrictions on hiring.
Panetta’s announcement noted that sequestration will add an additional $470 billion in defense spending cuts to the $487 billion in defense spending cuts the Pentagon already is making during the next 10 years. He also said that although military personnel will not be impacted directly by the cuts, on-base services would deteriorate and military families would feel the cuts in several ways.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., responded to the Pentagon announcement by noting that the Senate has not passed a budget in the past four years. He acknowledged President Barack Obama submitted a budget but said it was “so unserious” that it didn’t get a single vote in Congress.
“The House has now twice voted to replace these arbitrary spending cuts with targeted reforms and reductions,” Kingston said. “While the president’s campaign-style speeches highlight the potential impact of the sequester, they ignore the fact that the Obama administration proposed this sequester in the first place but has done nothing to avert the cuts. Neither has the Senate, which is controlled by President Obama’s allies in Congress.”
Kingston emphasized the country is not in the current “budget mess” because the American people are not taxed enough. He said Washington simply spends too much, adding that last month the president got the tax increases he wanted. Now it’s time to address Washington’s spending problems, the congressman said.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said uncertainty about the budget already is creating problems for local businesses. If Fort Stewart’s Army civilians are furloughed for up to three weeks between April 1 and Sept. 30 — as proposed by the Pentagon — Thomas said it would hurt those families and the community as a whole.
“It would be devastating to those families and all for something that’s preventable,” said Thomas, who doesn’t believe sequestration actually will be allowed to take place. “I think they’re going to push it down the road again, and that’s just as bad. This uncertainty is hurting everybody.”
Thomas said in recent days he has heard several impact studies about the budget uncertainty and impact of sequestration. What bothers him most is the possibility that Fort Stewart could lose up to $56 million in this year’s budget. He reiterated that soldiers will not be affected directly but said the uncertainty has to be affecting their career plans. He thought the only civilian personnel that might not be affected by the furloughs probably would be medical personnel at Winn Army Community Hospital, emergency-services personnel and law-enforcement personnel.
“I think this is eerily reminiscent of what happened after Vietnam,” Thomas said. “We didn’t have sequestration then, but we had to deal with budget cuts that cut the Army to the bone.”
Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart & Hunter Executive Director Paul Andreshak said he is disappointed that the country is in this budget crisis but said he is confident that military leaders and the civilian personnel can weather the storm.
“It is a sad day when the federal workforce is held hostage by a political stalemate,” said Andreshak, a retired Army officer and former Stewart-Hunter deputy garrison commander. “I feel confident that (Stewart-Hunter) leadership has prepared as best they can for the cut in funding. The civilian workforce is professional and, even given the obvious constraints, will continue to support our soldiers and their families at the highest possible level.”