State of the Base

"Whidbey Island Naval Air Station isn't destined to shrink or grow much anytime soon, its commanding officer said Thursday.But budget pressures are still a major factor in the base's future, Capt. Larry Salter said.That means no more Sea 'N' Sky Air Shows - at least unless a private contractor can be found to run one.And it means that many of the base's civilian employees are biting their nails these days, waiting for the results of a military-wide privatization study that might result in their jobs getting spun off to private contractors, Salter said.Salter delivered his annual State of the Station'' address to the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Thursday at the Oak Harbor Elks Club.He drew rapt attention from a crowd of 60-or-so business people and civic leaders, with good reason - the base is far and away Whidbey Island's largest employer, with 9,595 active duty and civilian employees bringing home a $248.5 million annual payroll. In fact, Salter said, the base is the largest employer in Western Washington north of Boeing.The base is expected to grow by one squadron in the next couple of years when a new EA-6B Prowler squadron is added to the eight squadrons that currently rotate in and out of Air Force bases in Japan, Turkey, Italy and Saudi Arabia. The military wants three of the four bases staffed with an EA-6B squadron at all times, Salter said, but nine squadrons are needed to guarantee that.Once final approval comes through, the new squadron is expected to be staffed by late this year, and stand up for active duty by August 2002. EA-6B squadrons normally include 150 or so crewmen, but since most of the new staff will likely move from other Whidbey jobs, the standup is expected to draw in only 50 or so new people to the island, Salter said.While the base's personnel count will likely remain stable - Salter estimated that it won't change much more than 200 one way or the other for the forseeable future - its employees may not escape change.Congress has ordered all military installations to take a new look at their civilian staffs to determine whether private contractors could do their jobs cheaper. At Whidbey, that means coming up with detailed descriptions of what civilian employees do, Salter said. After that's done, various parts of the base's civilian work will be put up for bid. If private contractors can do it more cheaply, they'll get the job. If not, the Navy will keep the work.Even though few actual jobs would likely be lost in private contracting, Salter said he's not particularly pleased with the idea of spinning off work. Other bases that have privatized jobs have found that civilian workers who used to provide help for any number of functions outside their immediate departments are no longer able to do that under private contractors - at least, not without charging extra for it. That's why, he said, Whidbey is trying to take painstakingly detailed inventories of everything its civilians currently do before the contracting process starts.The region's philosophy on this is we are going to win,'' Salter said. The civilian counterparts on our base are critical to what we do, and we want to keep them all.''"

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