EDITORIAL: Middle Georgia has work to do to protect its economy

November 17, 2013 

During a briefing last week with members of the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition, consultants and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., while on the same page, had different timetables about what could happen to Robins Air Force Base.

The basics: At some point, probably 2017, there will be another Base Realignment and Closure Commission. That’s good news, in that many of the strikes against Robins could be mitigated by them. The bad news, however, is that 2017, for all intent and purpose, is now. That means Middle Georgia has got to get its act together.

The Pentagon is going to be looking at something it did not emphasize in the prior BRAC rounds: Cost savings. According to the consultants, saving money will be the No. 1 priority, but there is a long list of issues the Air Force and the BRAC commission will be looking at and comparing. Here’s the picture. The Air Force has 500 fewer planes in service than it had in 2005. Fewer planes means less of a workload for bases such as Robins. Workers at Robins and the entire Middle Georgia community have to come to grips that, of the three maintenance depots operated by the Air Force, Tinker in Oklahoma City and Hill outside Ogden, Utah, Robins is No. 3. It’s time we try harder.

Not helping the situation is a Washington, D.C. budget process that is wreaking havoc on all branches of the military -- and that chaotic environment, depending on who you talk to, could last throughout 2014. That’s not good news. There are lawmakers who believe a budget deal will be reached and there are those who believe another “continuing resolution” is on its way. And, there are those who really think sequestration is the only way to cut government spending. While the Air Force and other branches of the military are seeking to save money this time around, they are looking for quick savings, which plays into all the military ALC’s favor. Closing bases does not produce quick savings.

Aside from the cost saving BRAC will attempt to identify, there are issues on the other side of Robins’ fence everyone can help address. The Clean Air Coalition, comprised of seven counties and 13 municipalities (which Joe Goffman, the senior counsel in the Office of Air and Radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency, called the kind of organization envisioned by the original Clean Air Act) has been working for 10 years to improve air quality. Goffman called the MGCAC the Holy Grail of regional cooperation. School buses have been outfitted with particulate matter filters, burn bans have been instituted, low-emmission vehicles have been purchased by the governments.

Why is air quality important? Any base located in area of non-attainment for air quality standards cannot accept new flying missions -- a crucial consideration in the survival of Robins. Bibb and Monroe counties were in non-attainment, but both counties have improved enough to have been removed from the non-attainment list. The standards are becoming more stringent and it will take a lot of work to stay in compliance.

And there are other issues: Education, (not just in Houston County, but the entire region), housing (affordable housing for military families), transportation (Hill and Tinker have transit systems, Warner Robins does not), crime, and spousal employment opportunities are a few other issues BRAC will consider.

There is good news on one of the big issues. Encroachment concerns are about to disappear thanks to injected money from Bibb, Houston and Peach counties’ special purpose local option sales taxes and money from the Department of Defense and the state. Getting that issue in the rearview mirror has also opened up some opportunities to save the base money on energy.

There is no need to repeat how important Robins is to Middle Georgia. Base officials, military and civilian, will do their part to make the base the most efficient, but our communities will have to pitch in, too.

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