Air Force to bridge budget shortfalls by teaming with state, local governments

Friday - 8/29/2014, 4:03am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Air Force is trying a new approach to deal with continued budget cuts. The service is looking to build new bridges to the local communities that surround those bases as one way to offset the shortfalls.

The Air Force Community Partnership Program became official July 24 when service Secretary Deborah Lee James signed a new policy directive.

The aim is to meet the mission requirements of its bases at a lower cost, partially by leveraging some of the public services local governments around those bases already provide, partially by letting counties and cities lease excess real estate and facilities on the bases, and partially by coming up with cooperative agreements in which local governments and the Air Force share the same public services.

One major enabler is new legislation Congress passed last year, which lets the military enter into a wide range of intergovernmental agreements with state and local officials.

Steven Zander, the Air Force Community Partnership Program's director, said the new law is the broadest legal authority the military has had in that arena for the past 30 years.

"It tells the Air Force and the other services that we can partner directly with local communities," he told an Air National Guard logistics conference in Alcoa, Tennessee, last week. "We can enter into a sole-source agreement with a local community, as long as it's a service they're already providing. It can't exceed five years, but you can use local wage rates. That's a pretty impressive amount of authority. There is guidance from the Air Force that says we need to make every dollar count, and this is not business as usual. What that means is that we're going to talk about creative initiatives, and nobody's allowed to say no. What we're going to talk about is how you get there."

In the preliminary stages, before the partnership became an official Air Force program, it established agreements of one kind or another in 16 locations around the country.

For example:

  • Last year, officials representing Tinker Air Force base and Midwest City, Oklahoma, agreed to use the city's jails for the military base's pretrial and post-conviction inmates.

  • In May, Joint Base San Antonio avoided spending $250,000 on a new animal shelter by handing over on-base animal control duties to the City of San Antonio.

  • In June, officials reached a deal with Prince George's County, Maryland, that requires Joint Base Andrews to send all of its solid waste to county-operated landfills. Under the terms of the agreement, the base will get a 25 percent discount from the rates it had been paying for trash disposal.

While those examples yield relatively small savings relative to the Air Force's installation support budget, Zander said the hope is that they will lead to bigger things once base commanders build tighter links with their local communities.

"We're trying to create an environment where people keep an open mind as they think about these possibilities," he said. "What's interesting is that once you get all these folks in a room, it starts out with the base commander saying, ‘Here's an idea.' Then the community leaders say, ‘Oh, that's what you guys need? We need something like that too.' The next thing you know, it generates a whole series of other ideas, and then you can figure out where to go."

The program is structured so that the Air Force has a cross-functional task force at its headquarters, which gives a range of technical, legal and other expert advice to local installations. But the service doesn't want officials at the Pentagon to be the ones striking the deals with local officials.

7 steps to an agreement

Zander said the Air Force wants local commanders to be the face of the effort, and it's not planning to force partnerships unless both the base commander and local community leaders are in.

"If you want us to send a team to you, you need to meet that criteria," he said. "If the installation commander wants to do it, great, but the community leadership has to want to do it, too. The only other criteria is that they have to use our Air Force process."

The Air Force process involves a series of seven steps that usually take between six and eight months, starting with an initial planning meaning, and ideally, ending with a long-term charter that outlives the military and local officials who first signed it.

Over the long term, the Air Force envisions using the partnership structure for a wide array of initiatives, ranging from cooperative police training to local transportation to snow removal and data center maintenance.