Dodging an Army bullet: State gets only a fraction of service’s 40,000 job cuts

Fort Huachuca is the largest employer in Cochise County, which is why a Pentagon plan to cut 114 jobs there has local officials worries. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine/USAF)

WASHINGTON – Arizona may have averted disaster in the Army’s plan to trim 40,000 jobs, but the announcement that Fort Huachuca will lose 114 positions over the next two years still is “not welcomed news,” officials said this week.

The Sierra Vista base is the only one of the three Army facilities in the state that will see reductions, as the service works to cut personnel to a pre-World War II level of 450,000.

Fort Huachuca currently employs nearly 8,000 personnel, 2,468 of whom are active-duty troops, so the cuts ordered last week will account for less than 5 percent of the soldiers on base.

By contrast, Fort Benning in Georgia will lose the nation’s most jobs, with 3,402 positions slated to be cut over the next two to three years. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska will lose the biggest share, with the 2,631 positions it is scheduled to lose accounting for 59 percent of jobs there.

While Arizona is taking a fraction of the overall cuts, local officials were still feeling the pain.

This is “certainly not welcomed news,” said Mary Tieman, executive director of the Sierra Vista Area Chamber. “We know the effects will be greater than 5 percent … when we measure the impact to our community.”

Members of the state’s congressional delegation went further, condemning the Army’s job-cutting plan, which Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called a “dangerous consequence of budget-driven strategy.”

“With global instability only increasing … there is simply no strategic basis to cut Army force structure,” McCain said in a statement last week, when the cuts were announced.

The Defense Department began notifying members of Congress late last week of cuts that would affect their districts.

One of those was Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, an Air Force veteran whose district includes Fort Huachuca. She denounced the strategy as a “meat-cleaver approach to budgeting.”

“Fort Huachuca is a national security treasure that is home to some of our military’s most important missions,” she said in a prepared statement. “These personnel reductions are short-sighted and dangerous to national defense.”

The base in Sierra Vista is home to the Army’s Intelligence Center as well as its Network Enterprise Technology Command. The other Army bases in Arizona are Camp Navajo and Yuma Proving Ground.

Both McCain and McSally warned that more cuts are possible in the future, if Congress does not “find a bipartisan solution that ends sequestration.”

“Sequestration” grew out of a budget deal several years ago between Congress and the White House, that required automatic cuts if lawmakers could not agree on a long-term balanced budget. It requires that half of the cuts come from domestic spending and half from defense.

The Pentagon said it needs the Army cuts to meet new budget goals under the sequester. One advocate said that the decision to spread the cuts around, and not slam a few bases with large cuts, came as a relief to many.

“This wasn’t that bad,” said Matt Barron, chief operating officer for the Association of Defense Communities. “A lot of communities were bracing for a worst-case scenario where the Army chose a few installations to take a brunt of the cuts.”

In the big picture, the Fort Huachuca cuts account for less than 0.3 percent of the national total. The fort does not have “a specific breakdown by command to identify which positions will be reduced,” an official statement said this week.

But these are not the first cuts to the base. Fort Huachuca has seen a 40 percent reduction in total personnel – civilian and active-duty – since fiscal 2001, according to the Army.

For communities centered around a base, any cuts can be “a disaster,” Barron said.

“It’s a huge blow for that community, and it’s happened before,” Barron said. “A lot of those communities took a long time to redevelop” and some are still “trying to replace that economic engine.”

The latest cuts add to an already declining economy in Cochise County, Tieman said, where Fort Huachuca is the largest employer. Barron said “death by a thousand cuts” is still a worry for base communities.

While Barron said there was relief that most bases would only lose 100 to 200 troops, Tieman said any cuts to Fort Huachuca hurt the economy.

“We continue to see population decline in Cochise County,” she said in an emailed statement. “Sierra Vista depends on the military and defense contractor jobs for a healthy economy.”