Budget stalemate in Washington has big impact on Robins Air Force Base

Robins commander explains how budget stalemate impacts the base

A commercial airline would never operate the way that the Air Force has to under the budget uncertainties, says Col. Lyle Drew, installation commander at Robins Air Force Base.
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A commercial airline would never operate the way that the Air Force has to under the budget uncertainties, says Col. Lyle Drew, installation commander at Robins Air Force Base.

Budget negotiations in Congress in the coming days will have big ramifications for Robins Air Force Base, even if lawmakers avoid a government shutdown.

Current funding of the federal government expires Dec. 8. Without a budget agreement, all nonessential personnel at Robins, as well as other federal offices, would stay home without pay.

The last time that happened was 2013, when the shutdown lasted Oct. 1-16. It affected thousands at Robins, but they eventually got all of their back pay once an agreement was reached.

Dan Rhoades, director of strategy for the 21st Century Partnership, was a civilian worker at Robins when the last shutdown happened. He had the savings to get by, so it was essentially a free vacation to him, but others don’t see it that way.

“There’s a lot of people who live week to week and paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “Being out of work and not getting that check is pretty devastating.”

For some, that could mean turning to title pawns and payday lenders for high-interest, short-term loans, which will ultimately cost them even if they get their back pay.

Although sharp disagreements in Washington over the budget have led some to predict that a shutdown is likely, Rhoades doesn’t think so. He said the word he was getting was that an agreement had been reached on a continuing resolution to fund the government through Dec. 22.

That means Congress would have to be in session on what would have been its Christmas break, and that’s a good sign to Rhoades.

“It’s kind of twisting their arms to make a decision,” he said. “I think that’s pretty good news that the leadership is trying to keep the pressure on to get a resolution.”

A continuing resolution means the government will be funded under the same budget as the last fiscal year. A budget for the full year is supposed to be approved and signed by the president by Oct. 1, when the fiscal year starts. But for the past nine years, the federal government has operated for at least part of the fiscal year under a continuing resolution.

That creates significant planning problems, said Col. Lyle Drew, the 78th Air Base Wing commander at Robins. Even if a shutdown is avoided and the government is funded through a continuing resolution, it would still have a big impact on the base.

A major issue it causes for Robins, he said, is that the base is increasing its workload this fiscal year and needs to hire about 500 people. But as a long as it is operating under last year’s budget, there isn’t money to hire new people — or at least not as many as needed and as fast as needed.

That means some of the additional planes coming in for overhaul might have to sit indefinitely because the base won’t have the employees to do the work. Even if the planes aren’t needed for a deployment, he said, units need the aircraft to keep up required training.

It also has a ripple effect on the community. That’s 500 good jobs that aren’t getting filled, affecting a wide range of businesses off base, including real estate, restaurants and just about everything else.

A second major issue for Robins is that about half the buildings on base were built in the 1940s. Drew has made replacing those a priority, but it’s hard to get started without knowing that the funding will be there. He doesn’t even have all the engineers he needs to fully start the design process.

He compared the situation to what might happen if a commercial airline operated the same way. If an airline didn’t have its budget approved, he said, then planes couldn’t be maintained, fewer planes would be available for flights, and ticket prices would go up because there wouldn’t be enough flights.

“The airlines don’t accept that,” he said. “They have budgets that are on schedule, that are on time, that meet the needs. We need the same thing within the Air Force.”

Also, he noted, the work done at Robins interconnects with work done at its sister maintenance depots, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Although each base overhauls different aircraft, each one repairs components for each other’s aircraft. So when each base doesn’t have the funding to do the work it needs to do, it affects the work done at all three bases.

And ultimately, Drew said, the entire Air Force.

Of course, he noted, all other branches of the military have the same problem.

“If we are going to maintain our national security, we need a budget that’s passed every year on time to meet not only our national security requirements for the threats of today but also for the threats for tomorrow,” he said. “The budget is a huge part of that.”

Budget impasses were more understandable when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress while Democrats held the presidency. So why isn’t there agreement when Republicans control both?

Rhoades said there are ideological divides within the Republican party.

“Trying to get all the Republicans in the room to agree is difficult to do,” he said.

Wayne Crenshaw: 478-256-9725, @WayneCrenshaw1