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European edition, Tuesday, July 17, 2007

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — With the euro at near-record highs, troops should be getting a bigger cost-of-living allowance, right?

Wrong.

Servicemembers’ buying habits — and their honesty about them — will end up costing troops up to $150 a month at some bases in Italy.

To help offset the cost of buying products overseas, U.S. troops receive COLA in every paycheck. But the exchange rate plays only a part in the COLA formula.

In fact, a bad exchange rate might prompt more servicemembers to do their shopping on base, and that’s what a survey conducted earlier this year indicated, according to 1st Lt. Tony George, financial services officer for the 31st Comptroller Squadron at Aviano.

The allowance is based partly on how much people who respond to the survey spend off base. The less they spend, the less COLA they receive.

George said Aviano had a large number of participants complete a cost-of-living survey in January.

“It revealed a lot of people are doing their shopping for goods on base and not off base,” said Tech. Sgt. Dennis O’Connell, noncommissioned officer in charge of customer service for the squadron.

“People were being honest,” said Maj. Darren Burrell, the base comptroller, about the surveys. “Obviously, if you’re going to be spending most of your money on base, you don’t need the extra money to shop off-base.”

As a result of the survey, servicemembers in Aviano, Sigonella and Vicenza will lose roughly $50 a month in July, then an additional $50 a month in COLA in August.

The exact amount of COLA a servicemember receives is based on a number of factors including rank, time in service, location, number of dependents and whether he or she lives off base.

For example, an E-6 at Aviano who has 10 years’ service and three dependents and lives off base had been receiving $35.89 a day in COLA. Starting Monday, that allowance changed to $34.09 a day, or down about $56 a month, according to the Per Diem Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee Web site.

The news is bit better at Camp Darby, where troops will see only one decline in COLA — in July. But it’s worse in Naples, where troops will see a $50-a-month drop for the next three months, meaning a sailor will lose $150 a month in COLA by the end of September.

The news wasn’t exactly welcomed Monday at Aviano.

“It’s going down? It should be going up,” said Master Sgt. Mark Kanitz. “The euro has reached an all-time high against the dollar.”

Tech. Sgt. Gina Francis said she does do a lot of shopping off base.

“I like some of the Italian products,” she said. “If I want a bottle of water, I’m not going to come all the way onto base. I’m going to buy it downtown.”

Kanitz, who lives almost an hour away from the base, echoed those thoughts.

“All my shopping is done off base,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. We’re barely getting by.”

To at least one airman, the change made sense.

Airman 1st Class Michael Williams said he’d like to keep the money. But he admitted that “I guess I do most of my shopping on base.”

“It’s more of a mental thing now,” he said. “You can’t go off base and act like you have a lot of money.”

Most troops living in other European countries will see no change to their COLA, according to the Per Diem Committee’s Web site.

For the latest COLA rates, visit the Web site at https://secureapp2.hqda.pentagon.mil/perdiem/

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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