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Leaders move to head off base closures

In three years, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission will meet in order to create a list of military bases across the nation to be closed.

Worried about the possibility that Whidbey Island Naval Air Station would make the list, Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen recently met with Gov. Gary Locke, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano) and other leaders to discuss what communities with military bases can do to prevent base closures.

Cohen shared some of the ideas she had heard at a recent conference in Arizona for military communities. “It makes good business sense for us to assume a more pro-active approach for gearing up for the next round of base closures,” she said.

They came up with the idea of creating a task force to coordinate statewide efforts to keep bases open, which would be a good thing for the state’s sputtering economy.

“Military bases are the economic engines of many communities,” Haugen said. “We need to be looking seriously at the government’s base-closure process instead of just standing by and watching it happen.”

Haugen then proposed a Senate bill creating the Military Facilities Task Force, which unanimously passed the Senate last Friday. Under the bill, the main goal of the task force will be to facilitate the privatization of the base operations — from food service to sewer systems.

The idea is that privatizing saves the government buckets of cash, so Pentagon penny pinchers would be loath to shut down efficiently-run bases in Washington State.

Also, the task force would study the process by which bases are chosen for closure in order to gain a better understanding of what the closure commission is looking for.

Membership of the task force would include leaders of the Joint Committee of Veterans’ and Military Affairs, representatives from local governments with bases in their communities, two non-elected community leaders chosen by the governor, military leaders from each base, and the governor or his designee.

In addition, Whidbey Island civic and business leaders formed the Whidbey Task Force in 1991 to lobby Capitol Hill on the viability of the base during a round of base closures. The group has remained active since.

These lobbying efforts can be very influential, according to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen. He’s a member of the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services and has seen how much grease the squeaky wheel can get.

“I think it’s very important,” Larsen said, “that the state continues to step forward and continues to make the effort.”

Last year the Bush administration pushed hard to get a new round of base closures started in 2003, but Congress pushed the date ahead to 2005.

At this point, Larsen said Whidbey has little to worry about. He said the base is “in a very good position to stay off the base closure list” because of its geographic importance.

“There’s not another naval air station in the country where we can get the kind of training needed for Prowlers,” he said.

While the Prowler aircraft is up for retirement soon, Larsen said there will always be a need for radar-jamming airplanes. And the diverse terrain surrounding Whidbey Island is perfect training grounds for the radar-jamming pilots.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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