Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Military Bases as Sacred Cows... or Jails

Sacred cows.

Sometimes, with politics, it's hard to tell if you're in a barn or a church, there are so many sacred cows.

Take military bases, for example.  Yesterday, a Senate panel stepped in to prevent the Pentagon from closing military installations deemed obsolete or unnecessary.  Last week, a House committee decreed practically the same thing.  This means that although Congress has ordered our military to achieve certain reductions in its budget, the military can't reach those fiscal cuts by ridding itself of underused assets like unwanted bases.

Granted, a military base is not any ordinary piece of real estate.  Many of them have been designed for specific war-centric uses that make them costly to retrofit for civilian applications.  Then there is the slipshod history of how our military, acting with impunity as a government agency above the law, has spent decades disposing of its hazardous wastes on military land.  If an air base, for example, was shut down, the military might be able to sell it to a private aircraft manufacturer, but they'd either have to sell the place for pennies on the dollar or pay mightily for expensive hazmat remediation, a dilemma that has plagued the closure of an aging Naval Air Station here in suburban Dallas.

Then there's the location of these military bases, which for security and political reasons, aren't usually in prime neighborhoods that command top-dollar valuations.  During the Cold War, locating a base important enough to be targeted by the Soviets close to densely-populated urban centers compromised both security and political perspectives.  Plus, politicians discovered that smaller communities without much economic vitality loved having military bases in town, so paybacks and compromises were all the better for the Pentagon setting up shop in places desperate for the jobs and ancillary benefits.

Indeed, it wasn't so much the noise, pollution, and congestion military bases brought communities across America, but the hundreds - if not thousands - of military servicemembers and their families, not to mention the scores of civilian employees and contractors who worked on-base.  Over time, military bases became coveted economic development engines, as our vast military industrial complex grew in might and authority.

So it hasn't really been front-page news to learn that both houses of Congress have pretty much put the kibosh on closing any more of them.  In the past, as various rounds of base closings - politically couched with the euphemistic term, "decommissioning" - have elicited raw episodes of economic and political bloodletting, anger and resentment against the process has solidified not only in communities that haven't been able to replace what they lost when their local base shut down, but in Congress, whose members can't afford to lose votes by doing something so unpopular.

But how many unneeded bases can we afford to keep on the country's books?  The key reason given for deciding not to close any more bases has to do with money:  the bureaucratic closure process is itself costly.  The economic impact to communities struggling to emerge from the Great Recession would also be considerable.  Instead of looking at how much money the Pentagon would save by closing bases, how much money might individual taxpayers and small businesses lose in the process?  Yes, our economy is more dependent on the military than is healthy, but it seems we've realized that truth a bit late in the game.  And if cost savings are the over-arching concern regarding budgets, deficits, and taxation, might there be other cows that are less sacred that can be sacrificed on the altar of political survival?

Probably not, at least not if we value both efficiency and saving money.  But then again, if our government was ever a true model of efficiency and saving money, that was a long time ago.

Here in Texas, our politicians still try and make a concerted effort at both, with prisons, instead of military bases, coming under scrutiny for closure.  Yesterday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (as if true justice can ever be criminal) decided to close two prisons in an effort to save money and reduce the state's current glut of prison beds.

One of the prisons being closed is the Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas.  It's a homely, brown-brick tower across the street from Dallas County's massive lock-up, on land that the city, the county, and the state's department of transportation all have their eyes on for various projects.  The jail itself has been beset by complaints about conditions for inmates, all of whom are women, and at least one birth was botched in its clinic that resulted in the death of the newborn.

On the other hand, the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility has been lauded by officials in its small hometown northwest of Fort Worth as a model corporate citizen.  The city of Mineral Wells has a population of 17,000 people, and the pre-parole facility has been one of its largest employers for years, with an annual payroll for over 200 employees of nearly $12 million.  It has fought the closure tooth and nail ever since the state announced their jail was on the chopping block.

Problem is, the jail wasn't built to be a jail.  Originally, the buildings it occupies were part of Fort Wolters, a military base that was closed in 1973.  When the state was scrambling for jail cells in the late 1980's, a section of Fort Wolters was repurposed as a minimum-security prison by a private jail company, Corrections Corporation of America.  It has netting, a chain-link fence, and razor wire around its periphery, but relatives of inmates housed inside would throw pre-paid cell phones and other contraband over the makeshift "walls," compromising the facility's security.

Officials in Mineral Wells say the contraband issue is fixed now, and that Corrections Corporation of America has partnered with the town to be as beneficent a neighbor as possible.  But the state, currently facing a glut of prison space thanks to its spate of overbuilding as a knee-jerk reaction to its shortage in the 1980's, simply doesn't need the Mineral Wells facility, especially since it's been an ad-hoc, makeshift makeover of antiquated military buildings from the beginning.

To the extent that Fort Wolters has provided a home to this prison and jobs to hundreds of Mineral Wells residents over the past couple of decades, its "decommissioning" has not decimated the dusty town huddled on the fringes of the dynamic Fort Worth and Dallas metropolitan area.  Many workers make the daily drive from Mineral Wells to Fort Worth where, indeed, another much larger military base has managed to hang on through a series of closings, mergers, and realignments over the years.  And with the prison's closing, more space will open up in that industrial park for maybe some other opportune enterprise.

Not that the industrial park today has a waiting list, however.  The place appears mostly derelict and vastly under-utilized.  But you can almost capture a glimpse of what the base, spilling out over the flat Texas prairie, may have been like, humming with activity and even helicopters, since it used to be a helicopter school for the Army during the Vietnam War era.

Up in Washington, Congress may have terminated the nation's base closure process... at least, for the time being.  Meanwhile, here in Texas, Mineral Wells is being reminded once again about how empty a former military base can be.


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