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Border-wall funding looks like it won't divert $310 million in Southern California military construction

A member of the U.S. Secret Service's Counter Assault Team, known in the agency as CAT, surveys the area during a visit by President Donald Trump to a section of the border wall in Calexico, Calif., Friday April 5, 2019.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP

By MARTIN WISCKOL | The Orange County Register | Published: April 13, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Military bases at Seal Beach, Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin appear safe from having a combined $310 million in construction funds diverted to build President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.

A memo from Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on Thursday directed the Pentagon to provide by May 10 a list of $3.6 billion in military construction projects that could be used to fund the border wall.

Shanahan specified exemptions of projects that can be put on hold, including those awarded in fiscal year 2019, according to the memo obtained by the military-oriented website Task & Purpose.

Most new construction planned for the three local bases have fiscal 2019 award dates, including a $118 million reconstruction of the docking facilities at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. That project will allow the station to load munitions onto larger ships and on to more ships simultaneously. It also will help accommodate the current shift of ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

"The language in the memo is clear that projects with fiscal 2019 award dates should not be considered" for cuts, said Capt. Joseph Butterfield of Headquarters Marine Corp in Virginia.

But some in Congress remain wary and uncertain if any military projects – including those in Seal Beach and at Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin – are safe.

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Laguna Beach, toured the Seal Beach base on Thursday. In an statement issued after his visit, he expressed concern about the projects there and called Trump's national emergency declaration to fund the wall "fraudulent." The naval base is in Rouda's district.

Rouda spokesman Zach Helder subsequently explained the congressman's ongoing concern.

"Given the Trump administration's track record of chaotic governance, the congressman will continue to take the threat to Seal Beach construction projects seriously until the national emergency declaration has been terminated."

Trump's money struggle

Rebuffed by Congress in his request for full funding of a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency in February to unilaterally raise money for the project. Congress voted to block the declaration but opponents lacked votes to override the president's subsequent veto.

A coalition of 16 states, including California, is suing over the move, challenging its constitutionality.

"The president's emergency declaration disregards the separation of powers in our Constitution," said Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, whose district includes Camp Pendleton.

"While I am encouraged that some projects at Camp Pendleton may be spared, the president's plan would still steal critical funding from military bases around the world and undermine our military's readiness."

Trump is seeking to divert $3.6 billion of military construction for the wall, with additional funding to come from the Pentagon counter-narcotics budget.

In March, the Department of Defense released a list of nearly $12.9 billion in pending military construction projects in which money had not yet been spent.

In a preface to that list, there were exemptions cited for projects with fiscal 2019 award dates and for "military housing, barracks (and) dormitory projects." However, because the list included some projects that qualified for exemption, there was confusion among lawmakers and the public over whether anything on this list was off limits.

But Thursday's memo specifically asks the Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker for a list of $3.6 billion in "existing military construction projects" by May 10, while excluding fiscal 2019 awards and military dwelling projects.

Eliminating fiscal 2019 awards from the list released last month leaves about $6.1 billion in projects approved from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2018 but not yet spent. It's unclear how much of that remaining money is earmarked for military housing.

A long pier

The most high-profile local project on the list released in March is the overhaul of the Anaheim Bay depot of the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, where work could begin as early as the end of the year.

The Navy's preferred plan includes a 1,100-foot pier, a new breakwater to protect the pier, a causeway for trucks and a channel dedicated to public boats, which now travel through the same area used by Navy.

The depot is used to load and unload missiles, torpedoes, gun ammunition and other munitions. The proposed construction comes at a time when the Navy is shifting from having 60 percent of its fleet in the Atlantic to having 60 percent in the Pacific, a result of the growing importance of commerce in the Pacific and increased possibility of conflict.

In addition to accommodating more ships, the work would eliminate the need to load large ships by helicopter offshore of Camp Pendleton. Additionally, the Navy's current wharf was built before modern earthquake codes were in place and needs to be replaced by a sturdier structure.

The biggest projects slated for Camp Pendleton are a $49-million amphibious-vehicle maintenance and warehouse building and a $47-million upgrade to the base's potable water system. If the base receives the $184 million in fiscal 2019 awards, it could still lose $26 million awarded last year for a replacement medical care center.

Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert is scheduled to receive $29 million in 2019 awards for a multipurpose training range complex.

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