BRAC commissioners to mull ‘brain drain’

Advocates cite poll of fort workers who say they won

BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

TOWSON, MD. — The Pentagon plan to shutter 33 military bases including New Jersey’s Fort Monmouth and reorganize hundreds of others is more about national security and not just about saving money, according to the head of a federally appointed panel now reviewing the Defense Department’s recommendations.

The “brain drain” predicted by those advocating to spare the Monmouth County base from shutdown and a subsequent transfer of its communications and electronics commands (CECOM) about three hours south to the Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground is a “very, very important issue,” said Anthony J. Principi, head of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission following a regional hearing here on the Pentagon proposal.

The results of a Harris Poll conducted after the Pentagon’s May 13 recommendation that most of Fort Monmouth’s technical missions, predominantly carried out by civilian engineers and scientists, be relocated to western Maryland showed that only about 20 percent, or approximately one-fifth, of those workers would move.

The expected “brain drain,” predicted by Fort Monmouth advocates who cited the results of the independent survey when they testified before BRAC commissioners on the campus of Goucher College here, is a “very, very important issue,” Principi said at a post-hearing press conference.

“We will study that [loss of civilian workers] very carefully,” said Principi, who toured the Monmouth County installation during a Pentagon-mandated visit on June 3. “We heard the survey statistics that a relatively small amount of Fort Monmouth [non-military employees] would move to Aberdeen.”

Many of the Fort Monmouth advocates who had testified during the hearing, particularly (Ret.) Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, president of Monmouth University, West Long Branch, N.J., and New Jersey’s U.S. Reps. Rush Holt (D-12) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6) had addressed the loss of civilian workers who have been developing technology now used by the armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Should the CECOM mission be shuffled off to Aberdeen Proving Ground, a new, technically trained civilian workforce would have to be hired and facilities would have to be provided at the receiving base to house their operations, according to Holt and Pallone who toured the Maryland base on July 1.

The costs of hiring, constructing or renovating buildings at Aberdeen to house a new influx of workers, and the environmental cleanup at the more than 7,000-acre proving ground, which mainly serves as a testing site for military vehicles and ordnance, would be considered by the 19-member BRAC commission as it reviews and revises the Pentagon’s list of recommended closures and realignments this summer, Principi said.

If the Pentagon ends up spending money to re-create Fort Monmouth’s facility and staff at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, the whole purpose of the BRAC process, to cut Defense Department costs, will be defeated, he acknowledged.

As a result, the BRAC commission will consult its accountants and financial experts about the cost-effectiveness of the Pentagon proposal, Principi noted.

“This is not just about saving money. It’s about national security,” said Principi. “We’re going about this to be sure the dollars we save can be used for utilization.”

Principi’s fellow BRAC commissioners, Philip E. Coyle III, (Ret.) Brig. Gen. Sue Ellen Turner and (Ret.) Gen. Lloyd W. Newton, both of the U.S. Air Force, who also heard from the Fort Monmouth advocates, agreed.

It is not just the engineers and scientists that would be lost in the relocation if the Pentagon’s proposal goes through, said Turner.

“Along with the scientists and engineers, you also risk losing people with very unique skills and talents,” she told reporters.

“We know that there would be a brain drain,” said Newton who had accompanied Principi on the Fort Monmouth visit in early June.

Coyle, who had toured the local installation on his own initiative on June 29, told reporters that he is impressed with the base’s display of motivation in contracting the Harris organization to research and gauge the opinions of its own civilian workers.

The Harris Poll results showing that about 80 percent of Fort Monmouth’s 5,000 civilian employees would refuse to move to the Baltimore suburb, should give the BRAC Commission pause about endorsing the Pentagon’s proposal, Coyle said.

By carrying out the Harris poll now, Fort Monmouth officials were able to measure the civilian workers’ current opinions about the proposed closure and move to Aberdeen rather than merely relying on information dating back ten or more years, he added.

Friday’s nearly five-hour-long regional hearing on this suburban college campus outside Baltimore was one of 16 or 17 that the independent BRAC commissioners, most with military backgrounds, will conduct around the United States between now and mid-August.

At that time, the BRAC commissioners will pound out a finalized list of installations recommended for closure or downsizing based upon the arguments and statements put forth in those hearings and the panel’s visits to each targeted installation, he explained.

“There’s a possibility of more bases being added [to the BRAC list],” Principi said.

The finalized list, with or without Fort Monmouth, is due to be submitted to President George W. Bush for his own approval by Sept. 8. The list is then to be submitted to Congress for a final vote later this fall.