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Local leaders stress the importance of Fort Bliss as job cuts loom

Joint servicemembers and civilians move in formation during warrior task training on Fort Bliss, Texas, on March 14, 2015, as part of Operational Contract Support Joint Exercise 2015.

VERONICA MONTES/U.S. AIR FORCE

By AARON MARTINEZ | El Paso Times, Texas (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 26, 2015

Local leaders in El Paso, Texas, met with Department of the Army representatives to stress how troop reductions and job cuts — up to 16,000 in the worst case — at Fort Bliss would have a dramatic economic impact on the post and El Paso.

"The Army has some very difficult decisions to make," said Richard Dayoub, CEO and president of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. "There is a lot of economic pressure put on them and as a result of that, in a worst-case scenario over the course of the next three to five years, there will be reduction in force throughout all branches of the military. This will affect our ability to defend our nation both domestically and aboard, but also affect our individual installation and the communities that support them economically."

The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce held a "Army Force Structure and Stationing Listening Session" on Wednesday for government officials, business owners and residents to address concerns to two officials from the Department of the Army of the possible cuts of soldiers and civilians at Fort Bliss. The session, which was attended by more than 70 people, was held at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Desalination Plant in East El Paso.

Leo Duran, president of the El Paso Restaurant Association, said any large cuts at Fort Bliss will hurt businesses in El Paso.

"It would have such an adverse effect on the overall economy of the restaurant industry and the whole El Paso community," Duran said during the session. "The restaurant community has embraced our military and we wish to continue this endeavor. We ask for your (Department of the Army) cooperation for us to continue to embrace the military community. Please take this to Washington (D.C.) and allow us the opportunity to continue to do business."

The two officials, Col. Tom O'Donoghue and Deputy Director of Force Management John McLaurin, are part of a panel of Army Commissioners conducting a Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment of posts around the country. The assessment is meant to find what impact any reduction — soldiers and civilian — will have on environmentally, socially and economically at a post and its surrounding city, officials said.

Army officials are expecting that federal budget constraints for the 2016 fiscal budget of the Department of Defense could force it to cut about 70,000 Army troops from 490,000 to 420,000, officials said.

The impact the possible cuts could have on Fort Bliss is not known. According to a 2014 Army's assessment report, a worst-case scenario at Fort Bliss could lead to more than 15,000 soldiers and 1,000 civilian jobs being cut. Fort Bliss officials said that on any giving day, there about 30,000 soldiers and 1,000 civilians at the post. Although, no exact numbers were available about how many people are stationed and work at the post.

"If the Army had a choice, they wouldn't be looking at reducing any installation but the Army is being put in that position," McLaurin said during the session. "How this is going to work out, I couldn't tell you because I don't know. Every installation that has been looked at, we have looked at what the number of possible reductions would be. In the case of Fort Bliss, it's about 16,000, both active duty and also civilians. Whether all or none of that will be in the final decision, we don't know yet and only time will tell."

A recent University of Texas at El Paso study showed Fort Bliss had a $6 billion annual economic impact in El Paso.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, said he does not believe Fort Bliss will see the worst-case scenario of 16,000 cuts. He said this is due to the past investment Department of Defense and the El Paso community have made to the post, along with the important role the post plays in national security.

"Fort Bliss offers tremendous value to the U.S. Army," O'Rourke said. "The Department of Defense, over the last seven years, has invested almost $7 billion in this installation. We have more than carried our weight in investing almost $6 billion dollars. We (El Paso community) have shown the Army, the Department of Defense and Fort Bliss that we are proud of them and that we are going to support them in everything that they do."

He added, "We know Fort Bliss offers the greatest value to the Army, so we expect to fair well if those cuts are made."

The Department of Defense has invested more than $6 billion since 2005 to expand Fort Bliss, including building housing, brigade operational facilities and the new William Beaumont Army Medical Center, officials said. While the El Paso community has also invested more than $6 billion in various transportation, housing, healthcare and quality of life projects, officials said.

An exact date has not been set when the recommendation from the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Assessment will be announced, officials said.

©2015 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

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