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BAH cuts still a bitter pill

"Two surprises awaited Petty Officer 2nd Class Antonio Gomez when he reported for duty at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station a few weeks ago. Both, unpleasant.First, the 12-year Navy veteran discovered his Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH rate, was about $95 less than he'd been told when he called the base in December to check. But that was before Basic Allowance for Housing rates went down for new Whidbey sailors Jan. 1.The second came when Gomez drove around Oak Harbor with his wife and two kids, trying to find a rental house they could afford with his new BAH rate of $600.I found out that $600 was not going to get very much, Gomez said. I had to look for cheaper housing, but I didn't want to put my family in the houses I looked at that I could afford. So I decided to go up (in price) and found a house for $800. But with utilities, that's about another $400 more a month. So now it's $1,200 a month and BAH covers about half.Gomez isn't the only new arrival at NAS Whidbey to report sticker shock after trying to pay rent on a house or apartment with their new BAH rates.Nor is he the only one concerned.On Whidbey, where for all practical purposes the naval air station and its $250 million annual payroll is the foundation of the economy, news of BAH reductions has been about as welcome as forecasts for extended rain.BAH rates refer to monthly housing stipends given to eligible military men and women who live in private housing. The military pays housing allowances because in most parts of the country, there are more service members at military installations than there is room to house them in barracks or base housing. The new BAH rates went into effect Jan. 1 - at the same time a much-touted, 4.8 percent service-wide pay raise kicked in.When the new rates were published, it was discovered that for 50 to 60 percent of the Navy's forces, BAH rates increased. For the rest of the Navy, they went down. At NAS Whidbey, the decreases translate to housing allowance cuts of anywhere between $19 to $122 less, per month, for the majority of sailors. And ever since then, sailors have questioned the notion they've been overpaid in the past for housing. They also question the methods the Department of Defense used to make that determination.And their concerns are spreading into the community.Dawn Rooney, executive officer of the Whidbey Island North Association of Realtors, said the impacts will inevitably affect the island housing market - one she described as stable and expensive. Seventy-five percent of the base's 7,500 active duty sailors rent or own apartments or houses near the base.It's going to start affecting their (sailors) ability to pay rent and utility bills, Rooney said. They don't have a lot of disposable income to begin with, especially if you're in the lower ranks and have one or two kids. Then you don't have any disposable income at all.Though the Pentagon has emphasized that the old rates are granfathered in, and that sailors who don't change duty stations or dependency status will be unaffected, that fact hasn't helped morale much at NAS Whidbey, according to the base's command master chief, Rick Rose.We know its grandfathered in, Rose said. But still, it's the perception. That we're worth less. For some sailors, like Petty Officer 3rd Class Anna Abbott, the new rates have negated the benefits of the new raise. And the timing, and net effect, was sort of ironic, she added. Sort of like robbing Peter to pay PaulFirst they give us a 4.8 percent raise. Then they take away money, Abbott said last Thursday. So it balances out that nothing ever really happened.But something did happen.In 1998 the Pentagon changed the way it determined housing allowances for Navy men and women, replacing its Basic Allowance for Quarters and Variable Housing Allowance with the Basic Allowance for Housing. Under the BAH system, the Pentagon did away with the old method of surveying service members about housing costs and contracted with a civilian compensation specialist, Runzheimer International of Rochester, Wisc., to determine housing costs in military housing areas.According to Runzheimer's Web site, the company completed detailed housing cost surveys for every military housing area, and the Department of Defense used the data to set the new BAH rates.But some, like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., question the methodology of the survey.In a Jan. 14 letter to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Murray questioned the Department of Defense's conclusion that affordable family housing was less expensive than actual market rates near some Washington military installations like NAS Whidbey.I am worried that the DOD survey underestimates the true cost of housing and inadvertently complicates the search for decent and affordable housing, Murray wrote.Members of Murray's staff met with Cohen's staff last week to discuss the methodology of the survey, which asserts statistical confidence levels of 95 percent.The question, Murray spokeswoman Tovah Ravitz said Friday, is whether the assumptions they made about Whidbey's housing market are correct. The senator has asked her staff to do some investigatory work to confirm the DOD's figures for the various Washington housing markets like Whidbey.Ravitz also noted Washington is not the only state to bring concerns to the Department of Defense.Repeated attempts to contact Runzheimer and Department of Defense officials about the methods used to set BAH rates were unsuccessful.Meanwhile, with little detailed information explaining NAS Whidbey's BAH reductions coming out of the Pentagon, some of the air station's sailors are looking for answers on their own.NAS Whidbey lieutenant commander Chuck Gordon has been studying the department's Web site on BAH rates.They said they had a statistical confidence level of 95 percent or higher, Cordon said. Ninety-five percent confident of what? What is the sampling ratio and why is this information not open to disclosure? Cordon, who holds a masters degree in operations research with a concentration in data analysis, said when somebody quotes statistics, it's common practice to allow for verification.We're talking about median housing costs here, not how many tanks we have in Eastern Europe, Cordon said. Is the DOD basically setting fair market value for housing in a dense military market? Cordon has taken a long hard look at the new raise and the newly reduced BAH rates and figures that after taxes and inflation, sailors new to Whidbey are receiving compensation equivalent to pre-1994 levels.That includes sailors like Petty Officer 1st Class Delayne Gerber, who recently entered Whidbey's housing market after transferring from Japan.Gerber, his wife and two kids arrived on Whidbey in January to discover that after 10 years in the Navy, his basic allowance for housing was $730. Had Gerber arrived in December, however, his BAH would have been $800.Gerber doesn't understand all the permutations the Pentagon used to arrive at the new rates. All he understands is a reality that hit him shortly after he started looking for a place to live near NAS Whidbey.It's impossible to find a decent, three-bedroom place for a family for $730 a month, Gerber said."

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