Air Force belt tightening likely to hit Scott hard

By MIKE FITZGERALD | Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat | Published: January 28, 2013

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — Some of the tightest austerity measures in a generation have led top Air Force commanders to cancel air shows and other unnecessary flight operations, to freeze civilian hiring and to prepare for unpaid furloughs for thousands of civilian workers.

Scott employs about 5,500 civilian workers, plus more than 7,000 military personnel from the Air Force, Navy and Army across a wide range of specialties and assigned to the major military organizations headquartered there. The air base's economic impact on the St. Louis region is estimated at $3 billion annually.

It remains unclear how the current round of cost-cutting will affect the metro-east economy, but the impact of prolonged belt-tightening at one of the region's economic mainstays could cut wide and deep.

The cost-cutting taking place at Scott -- as well as other military installations nationwide -- stems from the U.S. Congress' failure to pass a true budget for 2012.

Instead, the fiscal cliff deal passed on Jan. 1 funds the federal government through a continuing resolution set to expire March 27.

As a result, defense spending is stuck at last year's levels, even though inflation has driven up the cost of many basic items.

Even bigger budget cuts, however, are set to take effect by March 1 if a polarized U.S. Congress fails to avert the budgetary time bomb known as "sequestration." It would slash nearly 10 percent from most Air Force programs, though military personnel and war-related operations would be exempted.

The 126th Air National Guard Air Refueling Wing, based at Scott, has already been forced to cancel unnecessary travel, trips to conferences and to turn down requests for aircraft "flyovers" of pubic events, according to Col. Peter Nezamis, the wing commander.

"So these steps that we're taking now have everything do with the budget being frozen at last year's levels, and in some cases was reduced in some areas," Nezamis said. "So we have roughly seven months left to make up the shortfalls."

The result is an atmosphere of fiscal uncertainty for the wing, which has 150 active duty personnel, 350 full-time Air Guard members and 550 part-time Air Guard members.

"So if sequestration hits, who knows, the gloves can come off then," Nezamis said.

The 375th Air Mobility Wing, the Air Force active duty unit that oversees base operations, has already been asked to "take immediate actions to reduce our expenditures in operations and maintenance budget," according to a statement issued by Col. David Almand, the wing commander.

The wing's 2012 budget is $110 million, with civilian salaries, at $40 million, the biggest single component of the budget. The second-biggest budget item is civil engineering projects, with an annual budget of $20 million, according to base records.

The wing is assessing the areas where spending can be slowed down, Almand said.

"Each unit in our wing is submitting their spend plans and prioritizing their requirements," he said. "I'll review this list in the coming weeks and will have a clearer picture on the impact to any support areas that could be affected."

Scott had already decided to adopt an every-other-year air show schedule and had not planned on holding an air show for 2013, Almand said.

But until the Air Force reinstates the authorization or approval to host an air show, "Scott AFB will not plan for one in the near future," he said. "Currently, we are still flying missions as directed by higher headquarters and as required for pilot training."

In late 2011, Scott announced 321 permanent civilian positions would be eliminated at the base as part of cuts required by the 2012 Department of Defense budget.

The department had instructed commanders to stop civilian job growth above what it was in 2010, which meant cutting positions that were added after 2010.

Earlier this month, top officers in the Army, Navy and Air Force issued memos warning their military and civilian subordinates to prepare for extremely serious cost-cutting efforts. One of the most controversial measures: the possibility of requiring civilian workers to take unpaid furloughs of 30 days.

The National Association of Government Employees, the union that represents more than 1,800 civilian workers at Scott -- from daycare workers to civil engineers and firefighters -- has been working closely with the Defense Department to avoid furloughs and layoffs, said Meghan Walsh, a spokeswoman for the organization.

"If there are other means of cost savings, we're trying to find those they can look at as opposed to furloughs and cuts to the civilian work force," Walsh said.

With the modest salaries that federal employees are making, "They can't handle taking 22 days of unpaid furlough," Walsh said, noting her group is urging Pentagon leaders "to look at other means of balancing the budget as opposed to looking at the federal work force for some more sacrifice."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.


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