WARNER ROBINS -- If Congress approves a recommendation for a new Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the first and possibly biggest hurdle for Robins Air Force Base could come fairly quickly.
The first step, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, would be for the Air Force to provide the secretary of defense a list of bases it would like to close.
“We don’t want to get on the Air Force list, because if you are on the Air Force list and it is forwarded to the commission, there is about a 90 percent chance that you will close,” said Goddard, senior adviser for the 21st Century Partnership, a community organization that supports Robins.
Robins would seem to be at little risk for that because top Air Force leaders recently have stated a commitment to keeping three maintenance depots. Those include Robins, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
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Goddard, however, isn’t taking that for granted.
“One of the keys we are going to look hard at is that the Air Force continues to honor that understanding, but there are no guarantees and the pressure from many places will get stronger,” he said.
Even if Robins isn’t put on the Air Force list, the commission could still consider it for closure. Goddard noted that in the 1995 BRAC, the Air Force had five maintenance depots and didn’t put any on the list. The commission, however, examined all five bases and ended up closing two.
That’s why base supporters aren’t waiting around for Congress to approve a BRAC before getting ready for it.
The 21st Century Partnership will need a substantial amount of money to defend the base, and fundraising efforts are under way.
As soon as BRAC is approved, which Goddard expects to happen, the partnership will be contracting for 10 to 15 studies that will be needed to demonstrate the base’s military value.
“We are working very hard to get large businesses and foundations and people who have great interest in the viability of Middle Georgia to help focus and fund that activity,” Goddard said. “We are in a fundraising mode right now.”
Proposal calls for two BRACs
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Thursday that President Barack Obama will ask Congress to approve a new BRAC. The proposal is expected to call for a BRAC in 2013 and another in 2015.
Goddard said he considers it unlikely Congress will approve two BRACs in two years, but he does expect one will be approved, most likely for 2013.
Military value is the sole consideration when BRAC is looking at a base, he said, but that encompasses quite a lot. It includes factors such as labor-management relations, work force performance and air traffic. With quality of life for military personnel an important consideration, BRAC would look closely at the education system, medical care and even the appearance of the community.
That, Goddard said, is why the general public will play a vital role if BRAC sets its sights on Robins.
Centerville Mayor John Harley, an Air Force retiree who was stationed at Robins for 12 years, said he believes the community will have a solid case to make on the quality-of-life issue.
“I think we’ve got a fabulous medical system here, and you can’t beat our school system,” he said. “Early in the morning you can see how many cars are leaving Houston County to work in other places because they want to live here. That says it all.”
Encroachment, air quality considered
Harley said his only concerns in the event of a BRAC are encroachment, which refers to residential homes in an area north of the base considered at risk for crashes and high noise, and air quality. The encroachment issue is on its way to being resolved, but Harley said Middle Georgia only marginally meets the air quality standard, and that’s only because Obama last summer delayed for two years an Environmental Protection Agency recommendation for a stricter standard, he said.
Harley frequently attends base events, and he expressed confidence that base operations will stand up well under a BRAC examination.
“I couldn’t be more impressed with what they are doing out there,” he said. “I’ve never seen labor-management relations better.”
Goddard said he doesn’t see any deficiencies that would negatively impact Robins during a BRAC, assuming the encroachment issue is taken care of by then. The two biggest hurdles left for encroachment is a Houston County sales tax referendum on March 6 that includes $7 million for encroachment, and a General Assembly vote to put $7 million or more toward it.
“They are going to come in here with a checklist, and they are going to have pens,” Goddard said, referring to the commission. “It’s going be a black pen and a red pen. If you get black check marks, you are fine. You get red checks marks, you are not so good. You do not want any red check marks, and encroachment would have been a red check mark.”
He said there is a positive side to BRAC, in part because Robins could gain jobs. Goddard said he believes the base would be a good candidate for new missions. He said hangars and infrastructure vacated by the B-1 bomber mission formerly at Robins would be ideal for an Air Force Reserve C-130 unit.
“I’m not worried or afraid of the BRAC process because we know how that works,” he said. “It’s structured, and we can operate within that structure, rather than dealing with the legislative whims and individual agendas we might see out there from day to day.”
While the encroachment element of the sales tax referendum is the portion most often associated with the base, Warner Robins Mayor Chuck Shaheen said there is more in the sales tax proposal that would help in the event of a BRAC. He said $8.7 million allotted for parks and recreation would help the quality-of-life issue. He also pointed out that the $500,000 in the sales tax toward construction of east side base access would help with traffic, and help meet air quality goals by reducing the miles people drive to get to the base.
“We need to work together to support Robins Air Force Base, and the city of Warner Robins’ first priority is to support Robins Air Force Base,” he said. “We more than ever need to work with them on these issues.”
If a BRAC is formed, members would appointed by the president and members of both parties in Congress. It would have a large staff, Goddard said, and would conduct extensive data studies of bases before reaching a list of recommendations. Its findings would have to be approved by Congress and the president.
Faye Banks-Anderson, deputy director of Public Affairs at Robins, wrote in an e-mail the base would not comment on the BRAC proposal.
“We don’t speculate on a possible BRAC and if Robins will be affected,” she wrote.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.