By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
When Base Realignment and Closure commissioners sit down face to face with the community on Friday, it will be strictly business.
According to BRAC staff and some of New Mexico’s congressional delegates, the Commission will be acting like umpires, looking for violations of the BRAC criteria as laid out by the Pentagon in choosing Cannon Air Force Base to close.
“The commission is going to look at everything provided by the communities,” said Jim Schaefer, Commission spokesman. “The ultimate decision has to come down to the data — comparing the facts, looking at the hard facts.”
He said commissioners attend regional hearings to get a “flavor” for the facility and the community — they’re set to take a private tour of Cannon today — but the military criteria set up by the Pentagon is the most important issue. Those criteria include the current and future mission capabilities; the availability of land, facilities and airspace; the ability to accommodate contingency; and the cost of operations.
One BRAC commissioner said last week that the assessment of Cannon’s military value is paramount.
“(Economic impact) is one of the factors that the Commission is to consider, however military value will be a higher-ranking consideration,” said Commissioner Philip Coyle. “If the people on base or in the community have information to present, one way or the other, that will be important.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the commissioners he has spoken with seem interested in the question of economic impact. The economic impact on the Clovis-Portales area has been estimated at more than $200 million per year and close to 7,000 jobs, officials say.
“I wasn’t so sure that they would interested in economic impact, but several commissioners mentioned that economic impact was important and they wanted to look at that,” Udall said Wednesday.
The potential economic impact, combined with efforts from delegates and New Mexico’s governor to talk directly to commissioners, may be why six have decided to come to Clovis, Udall said.
Only five votes are needed to remove Cannon from the closure list.
According to the selection criteria, economic impact is one of the four “other considerations” for the commissioners to consider, which also include the environmental impact of shuttering a facility and the ability for the community’s infrastructure to support forces and personnel.
Some of the delegates argue that the Pentagon didn’t consider the economic impact on eastern New Mexico when selecting the base for closure.
“They are required by law to consider the economic impact on the community, and the Pentagon failed to do that,” said U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., on Wednesday.
Delegates and community leaders have said that low encroachment around Cannon and the possible expansion of supersonic training air space demonstrates the base’s strong military value.
Cannon supporters have widely discussed encroachment issues in recent weeks and, according to a spokesman for Sen. Pete Domenici’s office, Cannon’s low level of encroachment will be argued before the commission Friday. It appears the Pentagon simply didn’t weigh encroachment highly in the military value formula, he said.
“It is the belief of many of the folks who have worked on these numbers that the military aspect of Cannon was severely depressed by the way the Pentagon applied data,” said Domenici spokesman Matt Letourneau.
He conceded that even the delegates from New Mexico don’t have a good feel for what exactly the commissioners want to hear.
“If we knew what the commissioners were looking for, it would be much easier to go through this process,” he said.
Coyle said the commission will look at how the Pentagon calculated military value, and therefore the weighting of encroachment in the formula could be examined.
Udall said top military brass have emphasized in congressional testimony the future need for supersonic training space. Because of rules set up for the assessment of data, the New Mexico Training Range Initiative — which would expand supersonic training space in New Mexico — was not considered in the Pentagon’s assessment of the base.
Wilson said it is difficult to approach the question of military value, because some of the data just hasn’t been made available. It’s frustrating for Wilson, who says she opposed the BRAC round from the beginning.
“The quality of the (Pentagon’s) analysis is so poor,” she said. “They come up with formulas, and they keep saying, ‘Don’t look at the man behind the curtain.’”
She said the commissioners have been pretty clear about one thing: They will be looking at the criteria laid out by the Pentagon and assess the facts against that, she said.
That will be no simple job, Udall said.
“They have a short period of time to look at this entire recommendation they have received,” the congressman said. “The fact that we have a substantial number of them to come to Cannon and Clovis, and to hear from all of us, is important to the determination that they are going to make.”