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Financial challenges No. 1 priority for new base commander

If sequestration returns as scheduled in two years, Wright-Patterson will likely confront more budget cuts, but Air Force leaders want to avoid a repeat of a round of furloughs of civilian workers, the new base commander said.

Just days into the job, Col. John M. Devillier will face large challenges the next two years. As the leader of the 5,000 airmen in the 88th Air Base Wing, he’s in effect the mayor of Wright-Patterson, which has more than 27,000 military and civilian employees and dozens of different tenants.

But none of those challenges may be bigger than upcoming defense budget reductions. In 2013, automatic budget cuts, and a partial federal government shutdown, sent thousands of airmen home through furloughs and meant immediate and drastic cuts in spending and operations.

“What we really need to anticipate is there’s probably going to be, if sequestration happens … more cuts in fiscal year ‘16 so we really have to be frugal and good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollar over the next year to prepare for that,” Devillier said Friday in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.

In the interim, Devillier said he’s focused on next year and can’t speculate on what the impact might be in 2016 or the possibility of another furlough. Even so, he said fiscal challenges will be his No. 1 priority. Devillier, 43, replaced Col. Cassie B. Barlow, who this month retired from the same post and faced those issues last year.

Fiscal uncertainty and unclear budget signals from Washington will likely be Devillier’s biggest adversary in the two years he’s wing commander at Wright-Patterson, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C.

Gessel said a partial federal government shutdown and employee furloughs were once unspoken.

“That possibility used to be beyond the realm of consideration and now that possibility has to be something that he will have to consider as a potential outcome,” said Gessel, who has worked on Wright-Patterson issues since the 1980s. “He has to consider that could happen again.

“I think that one period of furloughs may be something that we can get through, but if furloughs occur on a regular basis it could have a devastating effect on morale of the workforce and the ability to hire and retain the best employees,” Gessel said.

Devillier saw the impact of furloughs last year as the leader of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“I do feel from my last position I saw the impact of furloughs because a large majority of my organization was civilian, that we broke faith with our civilian workforce, and I know the senior leadership of the Department of Defense feels the same way,” he said. “The intention is going to be to try to avoid that if at all possible.”

Devillier said building community partnerships with Wright-Patterson is in its infancy, but will expand. Wright-Patterson also has a future plan to lease sites on base to private developers. The Air Force has looked more to partnerships outside the fence line to compensate for declining budgets and unmet needs.

“We have areas on the installation that might be beneficial for our off-base partners (to lease) and that would provide some benefit back to us,” he said. “We’re still exploring all those types of options, but really everything is on the table.”

In his role as wing commander, Devillier said simply learning all the missions of over 100 tenants on the sprawling base has been its own challenge.

“Obviously, this is a huge organization,” he said. “I think probably my biggest challenge is just understanding the scope of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.”

A board of generals hand picked him for the job, which also marks his first permanent assignment at Wright-Patterson in his 21-year career, a position he said he’s “extremely honored” to have.

Along with budgets and managing the complexity of the base, the new commander may often find himself in the role of supporting U.S. forces in an international crisis, Gessel said.

“Wright-Patterson will be involved in any national security response to an international crisis and it will be the job of the Wright-Patterson commander to support the mission meeting that response,” Gessel said.

Devillier said his day begins early in the morning with a fitness workout. Then, he heads to the office for “meeting after meeting after meeting because there’s a lot of programs we have to oversee” on the base.

“We have to make tough decisions based on the data that we’re presented and that’s kind of what I get paid to do is make those tough calls,” he said.

When he’s not on the job, Devillier said he and his wife, Kathryn, are fans of the Green Bay Packers. Devillier, a Florida State University alumnus, said he’s devoted to college football, running and describes himself as “an avid gamer.” The couple has three daughters.

“My intention is to get out of the office and go to my daughters’ soccer games and do those type of things because that’s important,” he said. “You need a bit of balance in life.”

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