Plan unveiled to protect N.J. military bases from cuts

20150709_inq_jreport09-a
Acting Gov. Kim Guadagno unveils the report detailing recommendations to retain the state's military bases at American Legion Post 232 in Barnegat. Among the recommendations is the appointment of a military and defense economic ombudsman.

Over the last year, they were on an intelligence-gathering mission.

They toured military installations across New Jersey, learned about their multibillion-dollar impact on the state's economy, and met with defense and local officials to determine their needs.

Then came their plan of action.

Members of the New Jersey Military Installation Growth and Development Task Force - chaired by acting Gov. Kim Guadagno - announced a series of findings and recommendations Wednesday intended to inoculate the state's five bases from federal budget cuts.

Those potential cuts - in the form of mission losses or outright base closings - could be ordered in two years through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, or sooner through mandated sequestration reductions required by the Budget Control Act.

That is, unless the state, local governments, surrounding communities, and military officials work together to make New Jersey's bases more valuable to the Defense Department - and less appealing to budget cutters.

"The state must take all reasonable steps to fortify our military bases, and it must take them now," Guadagno said during the release of the report at a news conference at American Legion Post 232 in Barnegat. "New Jersey must demonstrate with a unified voice that it is military-friendly, and that the retention of missions not only makes strategic sense, but also makes economic sense."

"This is not a Republican or Democrat issue or a red or blue issue," Guadagno said. "It's a red, white, and blue issue on which we all can agree."

Among the recommendations: a "military and defense economic ombudsman," easing military-related projects, and a marketing campaign.

Wednesday's report was welcomed by businesses.

"If there's no Joint Base, there's no Wrightstown," said its mayor, Tom Harper, owner of Tom's Service Center, located near a base gate. "Businesses paying taxes offer more [revenue] than the residents do. I would like to see more businesses.

"A stronger base means a stronger community," Harper said. "There are cutbacks right now, but you don't want them to come to your backyard."

Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington and Ocean Counties has survived five rounds of BRAC - the federal process used to prune the Defense Department. It's likely to face a sixth, since the department has asked Congress to approve the formation of a new BRAC commission for 2017.

"No military installation is off-limits," Guadagno wrote in a letter to Gov. Christie accompanying Wednesday's report. "And we must not be caught flat-footed."

Efforts to find savings have led the Army to plan cuts of 40,000 soldiers and 17,000 civilian employees over the next two years, USA Today reported this week.

Amid the budget-slashing atmosphere, Guadagno and other task force members toured the 60-square-mile joint base and the state's other installations: the 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township; the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May; Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County; and the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Monmouth County.

They wanted to get a firsthand look at the bases and assess their impact on the surrounding communities. Their findings showed that the installations produce 45,631 direct jobs and 27,603 indirect jobs, while directly adding $3.8 billion to the gross domestic product and indirectly $2.7 million.

Holding on to those benefits is one of the objectives of the task force, which called for the appointment of the military and defense economic ombudsman, who will recommend "strategies and best practices for economically fortifying our military installations and improving New Jersey's defense industry."

The acting ombudsman is Army Staff Sgt. Sara Northdurf, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and is on loan from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

She will hold the position until a replacement is found. Candidates for the volunteer job would serve no longer than 18 months before being replaced.

"We will be searching for a business person with a military background, someone on loan from a local corporation," Guadagno said. "There are enough patriotic corporations" to fill the job.

"My perfect ombudsman would be a [retired] four-star general," she said. "I would want to get the highest-ranking military person we can find."

The ombudsman, who will report to Guadagno, will be expected to recommend "significant economic development projects that would support" the defense industry.

"A critical element of strengthening our bases is to ensure that private-sector businesses choose to partner with New Jersey installations - not those installations in other states," the task force report said.

The report calls for cutting red tape involving permits for military-related projects; a "military mobile cabinet" to improve interaction between state agencies and military installations; and a marketing campaign focused on defense industries.

The campaign would identify and encourage companies to locate in New Jersey to do business with the bases, Guadagno said. "We need to teach people how to do business with the military," she said.

The report also recommends efforts to align higher-education curriculums to meet the needs of the military and supporting industries.

The task force members include Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, adjutant general for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs; Melissa Orsen, CEO of the state Economic Development Authority; Michele Brown, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey; former U.S. Rep. James J. Saxton; and Paul Boudreau, president of the Morris County Chamber of Commerce.

They want to head off BRAC moves such as the one in 2005 that moved technical functions from Fort Monmouth to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland - a step that led to the fort's closing six years later.

"We lived through a closing," Guadagno said. "You see how it breaks up entire communities and families. It's more than losing a job; it's devastating."

One of the major vulnerabilities faced by New Jersey's military is mission migration, officials said. The joint base has an airlift and air refueling mission that could be moved to other bases.

"The need to reduce unneeded facilities is so critical that, in the absence of authorization of a BRAC, the administration will pursue alternative options to reduce wasteful spending," the task force report said. "In such a case, it is entirely likely that the administration will unilaterally change or diminish missions or contracting procedures at bases - a process referred to in this report as 'Stealth BRAC.' "

"When the DOD and secretary of defense look for bases no longer serving multiple branches and functions, naturally those bleeding missions will be easy targets."


ecolimore@phillynews.com

856-779-3833 InkyEBC