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Iraq war's costs pinch stateside Army posts

Bases' budget $530m short

Soldiers in one of three dining halls at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where offices are getting utility disconnection notices.
Soldiers in one of three dining halls at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where offices are getting utility disconnection notices. (AP Photo)

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A diversion of dollars to help fight the war in Iraq has helped create a $530 million shortfall for Army posts at home and abroad, leaving some unable to pay utility bills or even cut the grass.

In San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston hasn't been able to pay its $1.4 million monthly utility bill since March, prompting workers in many of the post's administrative buildings to receive automated disconnection notices.

Fort Bragg in North Carolina can't afford to buy pens, paper, or other office supplies until the new fiscal year starts in October.

And in Kentucky, Fort Knox had to close one of its eight dining halls for a month and lay off 133 contract workers.

``Every time something goes away it impacts a person . . . a soldier or their family or one of our civilians," said Colonel Wendy Martinson, garrison commander at Fort Sam Houston, which has 27,300 military and civilian workers. ``I'm charged with taking care of them, not taking things away from them."

Garrisons function as the city halls of Army installations, providing services such as garbage removal, mail delivery, and firefighting.

The Army's Installation Management Agency is $530 million short of what it needs through Oct. 1 to fund garrisons at the 117 installations it oversees in the United States, Europe, and Asia, agency spokesman Stephen Oertwig said.

The skyrocketing cost of fuel is partly to blame; paying civilians in Asia and Europe is also costing more , Oertwig said.

Another major factor is the practice of funding the war through spending bills outside the annual budget.

As Congress spent months debating the supplemental spending bill, the Army had to divert money from the Installation Management Agency's budget to cover the cost of the war, Oertwig said.

The Army often diverts operations money for other programs, in times of war and peace, said Jeremiah Gertler, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A supplemental spending bill usually replenishes those funds.

This year, though, most of the defense money in the $94.5 billion bill was earmarked for the war, leaving little to pay back operations accounts, Gertler said.

Military officials could have asked for more money to ease the garrison budget crunch, but they knew a bigger request would have created a bigger fight in Congress, he said.

``The Pentagon is reluctant to ask for any more than they need for the war because it all looks like it's going to the war and becomes a very controversial bill," Gertler said.

But military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said money management seems to be the larger problem. The Defense Department spends about as much on maintenance and operations as it does on weapons and personnel combined, he said, so there should be more than enough for the bills.

``It makes me worry if the Pentagon can't do its accounting well enough to find money for its electric bills," he said. ``It just boggles my mind a little bit."

The legislation Congress approved June 15 included $722 million for the Installation Management Agency, to be split among its installations.

Martinson still doesn't know how much Fort Sam Houston will get, but she expects it will be enough to pay the electric tab. A spokesman for CPS Energy said the company understands the problem and won't turn off the lights anytime soon.

However, it won't save the jobs of about 100 contract workers Martinson had to let go.

And it won't make it easier for her to scrounge up the dollars to buy chlorine for the pool where soldiers' children take swimming lessons, or purchase feed for the horses that carry soldiers' caskets to their graves at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

The new funds also won't change the orders the Installation Management Agency issued in early June to freeze civilian hiring and fire temporary employees, reduce cellphone, pager, and government vehicle use, and reduce, cancel, or defer contracts.

Oertwig expects the austerity to last for at least another year and a half.

``Every day we're looking at what are those services that are required to keep the Army going and where can we get efficiencies," Oertwig said. ``We're looking to get a dollar's worth of service out of 90 cents or less in some cases."

That alarms US Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican whose district includes Fort Sam Houston.

In a letter to Army Secretary Francis Harvey, Smith said he worries the budget crisis will affect Fort Sam Houston's ability to accommodate the 11,000 additional personnel being sent there starting next year by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

``That Fort Sam cannot even pay for basic post operations is, frankly, Mr. Secretary, a disgrace," he wrote.

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