LIMESTONE – An emotional crowd, including the governor and the state’s congressional delegation, cheered Thursday afternoon as the base closure commission voted not only to keep open the Defense Finance and Accounting Service center, but to nearly double its work force to at least 600.
Members of the Base Realignment and Closure commission, meeting outside Washington, D.C., went against a Department of Defense proposal to close the Limestone facility and consolidate it along with 25 other centers around the country into just three larger centers. Instead, the commission recommended consolidating operations into five centers, with the Limestone DFAS being one of them.
It marked the second time in two days the commission overruled the Pentagon to keep open a Maine facility. On Wednesday, the panel voted to retain Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, sparing about 4,500 jobs.
The commission also decided Wednesday to close Brunswick Naval Air Station, eliminating an estimated 4,800 civilian and military jobs.
The commission still has to vote on a proposal to move more aircraft and an estimated 240 military and civilian jobs to the Maine Air National Guard base in Bangor.
Thursday’s recommendation to keep the Limestone DFAS center open – approved by seven of the nine panelists with two abstentions – included a directive that the current work force of about 350 increase to a minimum of 600 employees.
The announcement was particularly good news for Aroostook County, which suffered through a previous base-closing commission and the shutdown of Loring Air Force Base in 1994. The DFAS center was opened in the former base hospital in 1995 in an effort to offset the devastating impact of the base closure and the loss of 1,100 civilian jobs.
Commissioners said they took into account the severe economic impact of closing the centers in Limestone and Rome, N.Y.
“We’ve got a better proposal. We’ve got a fairer proposal,” commissioner James Hill, a retired Army general, said before the vote.
“We’re keeping faith with people of Maine,” said Lloyd “Fig” Newton, a retired Air Force general who visited the Limestone center. He praised Limestone’s efficiency and said the workers there had “proved their mettle.”
When the commission voted shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, yelling, cheering, handshaking, hugging and crying filled the conference room of the Loring Applied Technology Center where more than two dozen politicians and DFAS supporters had gathered to watch the proceedings on television.
As word spread, the crowd swelled with scores of DFAS workers who came pouring out of their offices in the Loring Commerce Centre to join in the celebration. Someone broke out champagne bottles and the noise level continued to increase.
Carla Suire of Limestone hugged Gov. John Baldacci and said, “Thank you. Now I don’t have to sell my house.”
In addressing the crowd, Baldacci said, “When push comes to shove, this was a big deal – not only here in Limestone, but for the entire state of Maine. You folks here are the gold standard for DFAS. Your work, your work ethic has set the standard.”
“This has become a great opportunity for Aroostook County,” U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud said. “This is a fantastic moment for all you workers,” he said. “Now let’s go out and find more workers like you.”
The BRAC vote was a “real tribute to the workers of Aroostook County,” said U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. “It was an honor and privilege for us to tell your story.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who grew up only a few miles away in Caribou, said, “I feel a special pride, even though we were optimistic it would come out all right. How could they ignore the extraordinary work of Aroostook County people?”
“This is all sweetness, but the work force here did this over a number of years,” U.S. Rep. Tom Allen said. “This is a great day for northern Maine.”
DFAS employees and area residents concerned about the economic impact to Aroostook County had been on pins and needles ever since the center was included on the Pentagon’s closure list.
But workers and supporters were elated with the news Thursday.
“It’s a great birthday present,” said Mark Durinski, the DFAS local union president who turned 54 Thursday.
“It’s fantastic,” said Carl Flora, president of the Loring Development Authority and co-chairman of the Grow DFAS Committee, which was formed locally to assist the governor and delegation in efforts to save the facility. “DFAS workers sold this case. They are hardworking, diligent workers, and that was recognized. That made the difference.”
DFAS Limestone has become a crown jewel in the effort to rebuild Loring. The employees of the facility earn an average of $32,000 a year, adding between $11 million and $12 million a year to the northern Maine economy.
“Oh my God,” said Walt Elish, Flora’s co-chairman on the Grow DFAS Committee and executive director of the Aroostook Partnership for Progress. “This is great news for The County and a testament to the work force. We had a strong, compelling case, but the workers’ high production and the low cost of the facility sold it.”
The commission’s final report will be sent to President Bush, who can accept it or reject it, or return it to the commission for further evaluation. Congress could veto the plan but has not taken that step in four previous rounds of closures.