House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it “the president’s sequester” last week. In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama shifted the blame to another branch of government. “In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year.”
Can’t really see where any of this solves the problem. Ah, but what is the problem?
The problem, I submit, depends on where you are standing at the moment.
Looking broadly over what the nation spends and what it borrows, something must be done over the long haul. As the president’s debt-reduction commission put it, “America cannot be great if we go broke.”
One inviting prospect is to take an ax to what the nation spends on its military. Twenty percent of U.S. spending goes to defense. The United States accounts for almost half of what the world’s nations spend on defense.
That’s the view from 30,000 feet, a high-minded plain where spending cuts are proposed in a nearly consequence-free environment.
Closer to home, big cuts mean big pain for local economies dependent on Defense Department dollars. That’s bad news on top of bad news, and when we say “home,” we mean right here.
Col. Brent Bolander, commander of the Anniston Army Depot, announced last week that 371 temporary employees might lose their jobs next month if Washington can’t come to some agreement to avoid the sequester. “We’ve got some challenges ahead and the real issue at the end of the day is how we work things out,” Bolander told a local meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army on Tuesday.
Yes sir, challenges.
The sun is setting on major U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In general, that means the sort of work done at the Anniston Army Depot will decrease.
The number of workers taking home a paycheck from the Anniston Army Depot over the past dozen years tells the tale. At the peak of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, depot workers (including those removing stores of chemical agent, contract workers and tenants) numbered about 7,200. That figure has dropped by 2,000, down to 5,400 now, according to Nathan Hill, military liaison for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber officials I spoke with last week expect the depot’s payroll to continue to decline. The aim is to remain steady at a workforce level Hill described as normal for peacetime, somewhere between 3,750 and 4,000. Staying at that baseline is “our struggle,” Hill said Friday. If the U.S. military shrinks because of sequester or some other cuts in defense, then there may be even less work for the depot. In short, Hill said, fewer soldiers means even less demand for the work done by the Anniston Army Depot, which includes maintaining combat vehicles, among other missions.
Chamber officials say they are working on these challenges. They are meeting with the state’s congressional delegation to put the depot in the best possible position, budget-wise. Theirs is a three-fold task — promote the work at the depot, find new employment for the workers who have (or soon will) lose their jobs at the depot, and recruit new industry/expand existing industry in hopes of adding jobs to the local economy.
Sherri Sumners, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, heads up a federally funded program to place unemployed depot workers into new jobs. Sumners said the program, known as Operation 1st Rate, has “counseled 998, placed 135 and assisted 51 in converting from temporary to regular employment.”
We should expect that more people will need that sort of assistance. All is not lost, but it appears the amount of money coming from the Pentagon will be less. What comes next is a story that the entire community must write.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter @EditorBobDavis