War Costs Force Penny Pinching on U.S. Bases at Home

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

A diversion of dollars to help fight the war in Iraq has helped create a $530 million shortfall for Army posts at home and abroad, leaving some unable to pay utility bills or even cut the grass.

In San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston hasn't been able to pay its $1.4 million monthly utility bill since March, prompting workers in many of the post's administrative buildings to get automated disconnection notices.

Fort Bragg in North Carolina can't afford to buy pens, paper or other office supplies until the new fiscal year starts in October.

And in Kentucky, Fort Knox had to close one of its eight dining halls for a month and lay off 133 contract workers.

"Every time something goes away it impacts a person ... a soldier or their family or one of our civilians," said Col. Wendy Martinson, garrison commander at Fort Sam Houston, which has 27,300 military and civilian workers. "I'm charged with taking care of them, not taking things away from them."

Garrisons function as the city halls of Army installations, providing services such as garbage removal, mail delivery and firefighting. The Army's Installation Management Agency is $530 million short of what it needs through Oct. 1 to fund garrisons at the 117 installations it oversees in the United States, Europe and Asia, agency spokesman Stephen Oertwig said.

The skyrocketing cost of fuel is partly to blame, and it also is costing more to pay civilians in Asia and Europe, Oertwig said. Another major factor is the practice of funding the war through spending bills outside the annual budget.

As Congress spent months debating the supplemental spending bill, the Army had to divert money from the Installation Management Agency's budget to cover the cost of the war, Oertwig said.

The Army often diverts operations money for other programs, in times of war and peace, said Jeremiah Gertler, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The supplemental spending bill usually replenishes those funds.

This year, though, most of the defense money in the $94.5 billion bill was earmarked for the war, leaving little to pay back operations accounts, Gertler said.

Military officials could have asked for more money to ease the garrison budget crunch, but they knew a bigger request would have created a bigger fight in Congress, he said.

"The Pentagon is reluctant to ask for any more than they need for the war because it all looks like it's going to the war and becomes a very controversial bill," Gertler said.

But military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said money management seems to be the larger problem. The Defense Department spends about as much on maintenance and operations as it does on weapons and personnel combined, he said, so there should be more than enough for the bills.

"It makes me worry if the Pentagon can't do its accounting well enough to find money for its electric bills," he said. "It just boggles my mind a little bit."

The legislation Congress approved June 15 included $722 million for the Installation Management Agency, to be split among its installations.

Martinson still doesn't know how much Fort Sam Houston will get, but she expects it will be enough to pay the electric tab. A spokesman for CPS Energy says the company understands the problem and won't turn off the lights any time soon.

However, it won't save the jobs of about 100 contract workers Martinson had to let go.

And it won't make it easier for her to scrounge up the dollars to buy chlorine for the pool where soldiers' kids take swimming lessons or feed for the horses that carry soldiers' caskets to their graves at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

The new funds also won't change the orders the Installation Management Agency issued in early June to freeze civilian hiring and fire temporary employees, reduce cell phone, pager and government vehicle use and reduce, cancel or defer contracts.

Staff Sgt. Mark Barclay, 35, a small group leader with the Army Medical Department Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Fort Sam Houston, said he hasn't really noticed the cuts but is ready to adapt to them.

"All that happens is you just make do with what you have and try to get the best training for the soldiers," Barclay said.

Oertwig expects the austerity to last for at least another year and a half.

"Every day we're looking at what are those services that are required to keep the Army going and where can we get efficiencies," Oertwig said. "We're looking to get a dollar's worth of service out of 90 cents or less in some cases."

That alarms U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican whose district includes Fort Sam Houston.

In a letter to Army Secretary Francis Harvey, Smith said he worries the budget crisis will affect Fort Sam Houston's ability to accommodate the 11,000 additional personnel being sent there starting next year by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

"That Fort Sam cannot even pay for basic post operations is, frankly, Mr. Secretary, a disgrace," he said.