El Paso community leaders told a state legislative committee on Wednesday that a major force reduction at Fort Bliss would have devastating effects on the local economy, affecting the housing, education and utilities sectors.
The leaders from the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, El Paso Independent School District, El Paso Community College, YWCA, the University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso Electric Co., El Paso Water Utilities, the El Paso Apartment Association and others stressed the post's economic benefits to the region.
State Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, chairman of the Texas House Committee on Defense and Veterans' Affairs, said the purpose of the interim hearing in El Paso was to review the effectiveness of state efforts "to protect base installations in Texas during future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) rounds, including the activities of the new BRAC task force.
"We're looking at how to identify opportunities to enhance or expand current military missions in Texas, and identify new missions that would complement or support existing ones," Menendez said.
According to Defense News on March 25, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that another round of BRAC was being planned for 2017. In an article titled "US Army Leaders Push for Another BRAC Round," military officials are looking to save another $1 billion a year.
Texas has 15 military installations, all of them are coming under budgetary scrutiny, officials said, adding that Fort Bliss has the capacity to absorb units from smaller installations that will be relocated because of the cuts.
John Bailey, chairman of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce Armed Forces Division, told the Texas House Committee on Defense and Veterans' Affairs that El Paso was fortunate to be among those who lost only 750 soldiers under 2013 budget cutbacks.
Since the expansion that began in 2005, the El Paso community has invested $6 billion in transportation and other structural improvements to accommodate the growth, and the DOD has invested $6.5 billion at Fort Bliss. Construction for the new $1 billion Beaumont Army Medical continues underway.
Bailey said it doesn't make sense to make cuts in light of that kind of heavy investment in Fort Bliss, which also included the largest inland desalination plant to ensure a reliable water supply in the future.
Tom Thomas, civilian aide for Texas to the U.S. Secretary of the Army, testified that during initial early talks over potential base closures, a high-ranking official had said that "the Army was planning on closing Fort Bliss."
Instead, as the community came together and lobbied to save and even expand Fort Bliss, the military chose the Army post for greater growth. Thomas said that now "Fort Bliss is rated the number one installation in the nation, and (neighboring) White Sands Missile Range is rated number 10."
Together, Fort Bliss, and New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base offer 3.3 million acres of contiguous territory for military air and land training, a fact that El Paso leaders are pounding on to prevent deep cuts to the military.
"One out of every three persons employed in El Paso depends on Fort Bliss (directly or indirectly) for their jobs in some way," said William "Pat" Patton, economic research director for El Paso Electric Co., who also mentioned plans to provide Fort Bliss with solar powered energy under a partnership with the post.
William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, said the college district has plans to build a new campus on Fort Bliss that will better serve soldiers and their families. The campus would be open to the rest of the community, but will be geared to helping military members continue their education.
Representatives of EPISD and UTEP said they would be hurt financially if Fort Bliss suffers major cutbacks.
The Defense Department (DOD) is scrutinizing its resources to find where it can cut staff or eliminate entire installations under Congressional budget mandates and another expected round of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission proceedings.
Rick Soto, executive director of the El Paso Apartment Association, testified that the kind of cuts that military is talking about could lead to a near 40-percent vacancy in apartment rentals, far worse than what occurred when the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment left Fort Bliss and moved to Colorado in the mid-1990s.
"The numbers are pretty staggering, and would create a domino effect," said Soto, who estimated a loss of half a billion dollars to the El Paso economy.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, serves on the committee, and state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, sat with the panel during Wednesday's hearing. State legislators who had toured Fort Bliss on Tuesday complimented El Paso community leaders for developing strong ties and support systems with the Army post.
Tom Fullerton, UTEP professor and Trade in the Americas chairman, who was not at the hearing, said Fort Bliss plays a big role in the regional community.
"Although Fort Bliss will potentially not turn into the all-encompassing economic juggernaut that so many people were predicting a mere 36 months ago, it will still represent an important component of the local economy," he said.
"Should the cutbacks now on the table actually materialize, it will not be the first time that this has occurred. Between 1969 and 1972, nearly 50 percent of all troops at the base were drawn down, but that disruption did not derail the 'sunbelt expansion,'" he said.
Similarly, between 1992 and 1996, a reduction of almost one-third of the total number of troops occurred, but total employment expanded rapidly."
Fullerton also said that military payrolls and investments on the post helped to shelter the local economy from much of the effects of the 2008 financial markets collapse.
"While another 1969 or 1992- style multi-year cutback at the base cannot be ruled out, the current geopolitical outlook probably rules against that," Fullerton said. "Fort Bliss simply offers too much in the form of space, terrain, and installed capacity for dealing with the types of global risks facing the USA and its allies."
Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at 546-6140; @eptimesdiana.