Ever since it unveiled its proposal to save nearly $50 billion over the next 20 years by closing dozens of U.S. military facilities, the Pentagon has been busy defending its list of targeted bases. The closing of a military base is hardly ever a seamless affair, since it means job losses and a decline in revenue for the communities that surround the base. Local leaders in the 22 states that could see major base closures are therefore scrambling to get the Pentagon to revise its list.
In Monmouth County, New Jersey, the mayors of 5 different communities that surround Fort Monmouth Army Base recently gathered to formulate a strategy for saving the facility. They have hired a consultant to study the economic impact Fort Monmouth has on the area, and before the meeting even began, Oceanport mayor Maria Gatta made it clear that she was not happy with the Pentagon's decision.
Ms. Gatta passed around a political cartoon that she had cut out from her local newspaper that morning. It featured a drawing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, recommending that all of America's military bases be relocated to Iraq. The commentary got a laugh out of Shrewsbury mayor Emi Sicliano, who ran as a Republican.
Republican or Democrat, none of the mayors in Monmouth County, New Jersey, is happy about the prospect of losing the area's biggest employer. "Fort Monmouth contributes to the local, county, (and) state economy on the order of $3 billion a year," says Gerry Tarantolo, mayor of Eatontown. "We have 5,300 jobs directly impacted by this. Possibly another 22,000 jobs that are affiliated with some function at Fort Monmouth. So when you start putting the numbers together, you're starting to approach 30,000 jobs being lost in this area. That's a concern."
Another concern is all the business revenue generated by Fort Monmouth's 500 military families. Oceanport Mayor Maria Gatta says 2 years ago, when a bridge closure cut Fort Monmouth off from her town's business district, local storeowners saw their revenue drop by 20-60%. "So your little 'mom and pop' stores (i.e. small, non-franchised stores) are not going to be able to survive that," she says. "They rely, especially in Oceanport, on a lot of trade and business from Fort Monmouth personnel."
The Pentagon is required by law to consider the economic impact a base has on the surrounding community before recommending its closure. But because every town that stands to lose a base is going to take an economic hit, officials in Monmouth County do not plan to focus just on the economy when making their appeal to the Defense Department. Fort Monmouth, they point out, is located just 95 kilometers south of New York City. "Ground zero… a lot of Fort Monmouth personnel and expertise was deployed there," says Gerry Tarantolo. "We're talking about national security. We're right in the center of all of this activity. The 'soft zone' as (some people) put it. And to remove Fort Monmouth from this area is, I think, a big mistake," he says.
It is an argument that is echoed by members of the region's congressional delegation. U.S. Representative Rush Holt has already begun working on an appeal to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. "I expect the BRAC commission, like the Pentagon, will not be swayed by local economic arguments," Congressman Holt says. "So as much as we care about the jobs that are at stake here, most of our arguments will deal with the military value of Fort Monmouth," he adds.
New Jersey's leaders say they believe they will be able to save Fort Monmouth. The state's predominantly Democratic identity, though, is a source of concern for some of them. Noting the way the country has been divided since the 2004 presidential election into Republican-dominated "red" states and Democrat-dominated "blue" states, Mayor Gerry Tarantolo, a Democrat, and Mayor Emi Sicliano, a Republican, both suggest the base closings are political. "It just so happens that Fort Monmouth appears in a blue state," Mr. Tarantolo notes. "And (it's) a tag-on," Ms. Sicliano quickly adds. "I mean, it was added at the last minute. So to me, that indicates it's a political move," she says.
The Pentagon denies that partisan politics played any role in the base-closure recommendations-and in fact, President Bush's home state of Texas stands to lose more than 3,100civilian jobs should those recommendations be implemented. Texas will also gain nearly 10,000 military jobs, though, while New Jersey will take a hit in both the civilian and the military sectors.
The 9-member BRAC commission will review the Pentagon's recommendations--make any changes it deems necessary--and then forward the base-closure list to President Bush by September 8th.