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State on offensive against Fort Polk cutbacks

Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 7:00 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Southwest Louisiana is going full bore to convince the Pentagon that Fort Polk is too important to Army training and the local economy to lose nearly half its troops, and that a study of possible cutbacks at military bases around the country omitted vital facts about Leesville and Vernon Parish.

Fort Polk is among 21 posts that could lose as many as two-thirds of their soldiers if the Army reduces its overall force to 490,000 from 562,000 by the 2020 fiscal year, according to an impact study.

The Army has 51 bases nationwide. The study includes only those that would lose more than 1,000 soldiers.

For Fort Polk, projections are a loss of 5,300 soldiers, nearly 49 percent of those now stationed there. Only two bases in Alaska — Fort Wainwright at nearly 66 percent and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at 62 percent — would be hit harder.

Nearby Leesville's population is 6,600. Vernon Parish's population of 52,000 includes the military base, according to Mayor Robert Rose.

The Army study said nearly 3,300 soldiers and 6,850 dependents live at Fort Polk, and nearly 19,000 soldiers, civilian employees and dependents live off-base.

"Our city's budget is about $9.7 million a year. Just over half of that is derived from sales taxes," Rose said. Losing so many soldiers "would just be a disaster for our economy," he added.

If a third combat maneuver battalion is added to each brigade combat team, cuts overall would be deeper but 12 of the same posts — including Fort Polk — would gain soldiers rather than losing them, according to the study by the Army Environmental Command and Potomac-Hudson Engineering Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md.

Local officials held a public meeting this week, and a standing-room-only crowd of about 125 people packed the Leesville courthouse, said Avon Knowlton of the Southwestern Louisiana Economic Development Alliance.

In Baton Rouge, the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs chimed in Wednesday with a two-page letter describing state money spent for Fort Polk. The letter cited $25 million planned for sewage, water and other infrastructure to support off-base housing and other development and $114 million to widen Louisiana Highway 28 to four lanes to speed up the 50-mile ride to England Airpark — the airport used to get troops to and from Fort Polk.

The committee had heard testimony that a study done for the state found that losing 5,300 troops at Fort Polk would cost $401 million in statewide sales, $347.6 million in income, $24.3 million in state taxes and $7.1 million in local revenue.

Mike Reese, chairman of the group Fort Polk Progress, said the community's fight is being waged on two fronts.

One is convincing authorities that the proposed cuts at Fort Polk would disproportionately hurt the area in comparison to other bases and communities facing larger reductions. He pointed out that the Army has said it doesn't want to create disproportionate economic effects. The Army study looked at areas around the 21 bases that face cuts and found that 19 would face significant losses to their economies.

Cathy Kropp, environmental public affairs specialist at the Army Environmental Command, said most of the public comments coming in are about socioeconomic effects of the proposed cuts, which the Army already knows would be huge.

"Any data that people give us that makes it more significant — it doesn't matter, because the highest rating you can give is significant," she said. "We're getting a lot of data, and I'm worried that people are thinking we're going to redo our analysis. But even with the new data, that analysis will be the same."

As of Tuesday, she said, Fort Polk's supporters had sent in more than half of the comments supporting any of the 21 bases.

The 11 bases that would lose more soldiers than Fort Polk — 7,100 at Fort Benning, Ga., and 8,000 at 10 others — would lose anywhere from 14 percent of their troop strength at Fort Bragg, N.C., to 43.1 percent at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. A 2,400-soldier cut at Fort Irwin, Calif., puts its percentage loss between Fort Hood and Schofield Barracks, at 43.3 percent.

The second front in the community's fight, Reese said, is proving Fort Polk's strategic military value. That includes having one of the largest areas available for training and the lowest cost of living at any base, he said. He quoted an Army report that the housing allowance for captains is at $1,326 at Fort Polk, with the next lowest $1,476 at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Fort Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center is the last stop for brigades going overseas, and keeping a brigade on that base saves travel costs, officials said.

In addition, Rose argued that the Army impact study omitted recent improvements and current expansions.

"What's not reflected in that study is that in the last six years, the Army has spent almost a billion dollars at Fort Polk in modernizing and expanding nearly everything — its training ranges, its firing ranges, its infrastructure — everything required to train troops in modern times," Rose said. "Additionally, Fort Polk is the only Army Base that's been able to add acreage with the full support of the politicians in the region and business community. All other bases were shut down in their efforts to grow."

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