Politics & Government

Local leaders say Army needs to know JBLM cuts would be devastating

If the worst-case scenario plays out at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and thousands of active-duty military positions are eliminated in a postwar Army drawdown, the effect on communities adjacent to the military installation would be catastrophic, South Sound leaders said Thursday.

It also would have a big effect on the economy, including a retail sales tax loss that’s more than five times the loss projected by the Army, according to new numbers released by the state’s Office of Financial Management.

State officials and South Sound leaders met Thursday in Lakewood to talk about what the public can do to convince the U.S. Army Environmental Command to minimize cuts. The best way to make an impact is to write letters about how the base is tied to the local community, said Mary Huff, program coordinator of the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership.

“I don’t think it’s hard once you think ‘What do I need from JBLM? How does my community benefit from JBLM?’ ” Huff said.

The Partnership group, along with U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, led Thursday’s meeting to encourage business leaders and others to submit letters to the command before its Aug. 25 deadline.

In June, the Army released a report detailing reductions on bases around the country. It spoke of slashing JBLM by up to 16,000 active-duty personnel from the base’s peak strength in 2011; that includes about 5,400 troops already lost through force reductions during the past two years.

The report said the cuts wouldn’t have a significant effect on the environment. And while the document acknowledged a socioeconomic hit, state and county officials say the Army’s analysis didn’t come close to reality.

“Its going to hurt everybody in the long run,” said Lakewood restaurant owner Rod Mason. “They must have blinders on in the Army if they can’t see what it’s going to do.”

Mason owns Gertie’s Restaurant with his wife, Susan Rothwell. Rothwell’s family has operated the business since 1952. Located between Camp Murray and JBLM near Madigan Army Medical Center, the restaurant has a loyal military customer base.

“We live and die by the troops,” Rothwell said.

The state Office of Financial Management analyzed the potential effects of the drawdown and determined the state would lose $20.47 million in retail sales tax in fiscal year 2016. The Army has predicted a loss of $3.5 million for the same period.

The reason the numbers differ so dramatically is because the state used a different model to analyze the impacts. It also took financial projections and data from the state instead of the broad-brush approach the Army used, said Kristine Reeves, director of military and defense sector for the state Department of Commerce.

“All you have to do is go to the Lakewood Town Center and see all the uniforms,” Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield said about the effect military personnel have on the community.

In Lacey, it’s estimated one in 10 people are active-duty military or have some connection to the military, said City Councilwoman Cynthia Pratt. The impact to her city’s revenues would be dramatic, she said.

“JBLM is not a strain on our region or state,” Pratt said. “A forced reduction of 16,000 at JBLM does not make sense given the military investment at this installation.”

The base’s most recent data show that it has about 41,000 military service members assigned to it, including active-duty and Reserve members of all service branches (mostly Army and Air Force). Of that total, about 27,700 are active-duty soldiers. In addition, it has more than 15,000 civilian employees.

If the full force reductions are made over the next three years, it would leave the base with about 16,000 active-duty soldiers. That’s fewer than it had in 2001 when the buildup began for the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The South Sound Military and Communities Partnership is pushing the community to write letters because Pentagon officials said they hold weight when it comes time to make cuts, Huff said.

In 2013 the Army published a similar report projecting cuts that ultimately led to the deactivation of one of JBLM’s 4,500-soldier Stryker brigades. The base also lost a 500-soldier artillery battalion and is about to deactivate a 400-soldier aviation squadron.

At the time, the Partnership was the only group to send a letter to the Army about the proposed cuts. Meanwhile, a community in Louisiana sent more than 4,000 letters and saw minor reductions at its local base, Huff said.

South Sound leaders know cuts are inevitable but they hope the damage won’t be as severe as projected if enough people comment.

“(The Army) found that a reduction of up to 16,000 personnel from JBLM would have no significant impact on the surrounding community,” Heck said. “Let me be clear: They are wrong, and we disagree, and it’s our job to make sure they understand.”