Base votes stir ‘conflicting emotions’

This story was published on Aug. 25, 2005 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Bucking Pentagon recommendations, a national base-closing commission voted Wednesday to spare Maine’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from closure but shut down Brunswick Naval Air Station, eliminating an estimated 4,800 military and civilian jobs.

The Base Realignment and Closure commission, meeting outside Washington, D.C., was expected to vote today on whether to close a third Maine facility, Limestone’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service center, which employs about 350 people. Also yet to be voted on is the Pentagon’s proposal to move 12 KC-135 tankers, adding up to 240 military and civilian jobs, to the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor.

The Wednesday morning votes by the BRAC commission predictably produced mixed reactions from the state’s elected officials, who alternately hailed the panel’s wisdom in saving Portsmouth and faulted it for leaving the Northeast vulnerable by closing Brunswick, the region’s only active military airfield.

“Today is one of conflicting emotions,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who said during a Portland news conference that she was “sadly disturbed and disappointed” by the 7-2 vote to close the midcoast base.

“I don’t believe any amount of cost savings can justify leaving an entire quadrant of the nation defenseless,” Snowe said, referring to the Defense Department’s projected $800 million in savings over 20 years. “This decision … could result in incalculable harm to our nation’s security.”

The Northeast was the region hardest hit by the Defense Department’s proposed closure list, released in May, with Maine and Connecticut slated to lose more than 15,000 jobs. In all, the Pentagon recommended closing or realigning about 800 military facilities nationwide and reducing its work force by about 26,000 positions. The Defense Department has estimated the total savings at $50 billion over 20 years.

In another victory of sorts for the region, the commission also voted to keep open Submarine Base New London in Connecticut which employs roughly 8,500 people.

As in communities throughout the United States, people in Brunswick waited anxiously to learn the fate of their base. News of its imminent closure was met with disbelief.

“I really thought we had a chance,” said Clive Tillotson, 73, who joined several other residents at the town’s former high school to watch the proceedings on a big-screen television. “It’s been part of the community for so long; it’s going to hurt everybody in town.”

Tillotson took some solace in the commission’s rationale for closing the base, which opened in 1943. Commissioners framed the vote as an attempt to allow private redevelopment of the property, rather than maintain a scaled-back military facility, as was proposed by the Pentagon.

“Well, at least the community might have some chance to do something there,” said a deflated Tillotson of nearby Harpswell. “At least it gives them some leeway.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, attributed the panel’s vote on Brunswick to the Navy’s earlier recommendation to close the base. The Pentagon overruled the Navy and supported a plan to retain the strategically located base, but in a limited capacity.

“That flip-flop sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of commissioners,” Collins said at the Portland news conference.

About 50 miles south in Kittery, home to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, workers and residents were relieved when the commission voted 7-1 with one abstention to save the shipyard, which has escaped the closure list several times before.

The commission’s vote directly preserved at least 4,300 jobs. Chairman Anthony Principi said closing the yard, the nation’s oldest, would be a tragedy. He called Portsmouth the nation’s pre-eminent public shipyard, the “gold standard by which the country should measure shipyards.”

People in Kittery honked their horns and cheered at the news.

“Yee-ha! That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” shouted Steve Walsh of Berwick, a shipyard worker, as he drove away for lunch. Workers had gathered at the shipyard’s auditorium to watch the voting.

As a formality, no vote is final until the close of the panel’s deliberations, expected Friday.

In anticipation of the commission’s voting Thursday morning on the DFAS center in Limestone, Collins and 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud flew to the Loring Commerce Centre on Wednesday evening. Gov. John Baldacci and Sen. Olympia Snowe were expected to fly up in the morning to await the commission’s decision with DFAS employees and supporters.

The commission must present its complete list of recommendations to the president by Sept. 8. The president then has until Sept. 23 either to forward the report to Congress or return it to the commission.

If the report is returned, which is not expected, the commission has until Oct. 20 to resubmit its recommendations. The president has until Nov. 7 to approve the report and send it back to Congress.

Upon the report’s receipt, Congress has 45 days to accept or reject the report in full, or it automatically becomes law.

BDN writer Jeff Tuttle reported from Brunswick and Portland. The Associated Press contributed from Kittery.

A1 for Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005

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