The South Carolina Military Base Task Force’s stated mission is to prevent the Defense Department and other federal officials from closing one of South Carolina’s eight installations.
But while base closings are years away, a looming $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years has effectively given the task force a new mission: trying to keep the inevitable impact in South Carolina to a minimum.
“Sequestration is alive and well at Shaw Air Force Base,” former Sumter mayor Steve Creech told the task force Wednesday. Creech, who represents the region on the board, warned Shaw is already making severe cutbacks.
“The only maintenance stuff they’re doing is what they absolutely have to do,” he said. “We had a windstorm come through the base and blow down a lot of trees. Those trees are still laying there. They’ve been there a month.” He added the wind had knocked down trees on the golf course, damaged a building, and even blown off parts of the tail of a World War II-era plane on display. Little of the damage has been repaired a month later.
In addition to that, one of Shaw’s three squadrons was ordered to “stand down” after returning from Afghanistan in April. The base’s commander had also ordered the movie theater to be closed (the bowling alley may next), and 8,000 civilian employees are facing 11 days of furlough starting in July.
“They’re not going to get 20 percent of their weekly paycheck for 11 weeks,” Creech said, “This is big business. This is something you really have to look at.”
While Shaw seems to be feeling the brunt of sequestration cuts at the moment, representatives from other regions warned the civilian furloughs are coming all across the state in a little more than a month.
“When things get placed on the back burner, people think they’re not going to happen. But expect an uproar,” said retired Col. John Payne, who represents the Beaufort area.
Task force members seemed to recognize there was little South Carolina could do immediately. However, they are communicating with South Carolina’s congressional delegation and the Defense Department in an effort to prevent the cuts from possibly getting even worse in future years.
Chairman Bill Bethea said South Carolina needs to show that it considers the military a priority in order to avoid larger cuts over the next decade. “We’re hoping that, because of the importance of the mission that our bases undertake, that we’ll be treated a little less painfully than others,” he told South Carolina Radio Network after the meeting.
Bethea said the task force is mostly trying to improve the local infrastructure for South Carolina’s bases to make them more appealing and less likely to be closed in the future. There are rumors that the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) could begin meeting again by 2015 (though most of the task force members said Wednesday they believe 2017 is more likely). BRAC has had an impact in South Carolina before, closing Naval Station Charleston in 1993.
While BRAC is years in the future, communities are still worried that the Defense Department could transfer units and commands for efficiency reasons. It’s not clear what sort of impact that would have on South Carolina.
“Our concern is what (the Pentagon) will do with troop placements leading up to BRAC,” Adjutant General Robert Livingston said, “It will be a lot more than BRAC moving forward.”
Bethea agreed, “If the uncertainty continues too long, it could clearly have an adverse impact. But I think that the only thing we can do to address that is to try to be as proactive as we can (and) try to put the best face forward that we can as far as what we’re doing for our military.”
Also on Wednesday, the task force voted to name a new executive coordinator. Charlie Ferrell, a former Marine who heads the South Carolina Aerospace Commission, will replace retired Gen. William “Dutch” Holland. Holland said he will step down next month to focus on other priorities, but will remain active with the task force. He was named the coordinator last year.