N.J. urging Congress to halt transfer of base jobs to Md.

The Baltimore Sun

One of Maryland's largest military base expansions is slated to come under congressional scrutiny this week, as civilian employees at Fort Monmouth press their fight to spare the 90-year-old base in New Jersey and keep its high-tech defense jobs from moving to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The House Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing tomorrow to review the 2005 congressional decision to close 22 military installations nationwide, including Fort Monmouth, while expanding others, including Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.

Maryland officials have welcomed the base "realignments" as an economic bonanza for the state and say they're confident that Congress will honor an independent base-closure process it set up nearly 20 years ago to avoid parochial infighting over moving military jobs from state to state.

The stakes are high for Maryland: Fort Monmouth's work force makes up more than half of the 9,400 defense jobs and embedded contractors being transferred to Aberdeen, and nearly a third of the direct military job gains projected statewide.

"The football game is over," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the committee. "And one team has begun to prepare for the next game and the other team is trying to reverse the score."

Such win-lose talk angers New Jersey officials, who contend that the process got derailed and that soldiers could die if the electronics and sensor development at Fort Monmouth is disrupted. They hope to turn the hearing spotlight on soaring Pentagon cost estimates for closing the base and on the potential for disrupting vital electronic war-fighting research and development by uprooting the base's work force.

"I think that if you close the fort, you will have a very negative impact on the war on terrorism, both in Iraq and Afghanistan and other points around the world," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat.

A recent survey by base officials found that only about 30 percent of the 5,200 workers at Fort Monmouth say they're even considering relocating to Maryland when their jobs transfer. Far more indicate that they would quit or retire rather than move.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's cost estimates for the base closure and job transfer have nearly doubled, to $1.5 billion, from what Army brass originally told the independent base-realignment commission in 2005. Critics say the Pentagon ignored - or suppressed - higher cost estimates from base officials then, as well as warnings of a major turnover in staff.

Army spokesmen have said that unlike earlier base shake-ups in the 1980s and '90s, those recommended in 2005 were not primarily to save money, but to improve "military value," by combining related operations. Some moves also were proposed to enhance security against terrorism by shifting defense workers in leased civilian offices to guarded military bases.

The ordered closure has been a bitter pill for many workers at Fort Monmouth, which has roots on the Jersey Shore as extensive as Aberdeen Proving Ground's in Maryland. Since World War I, when it served as a training ground for telegraph operators and courier pigeons, Fort Monmouth has been helping the Army communicate.

Today, its employees - the vast majority of them civilians - develop computers, electronic sensors, night-vision devices and satellite communications for the "warfighter," as soldiers are now known.

Charles Battaglia, former executive director of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) that screened the Pentagon's recommendations, said the nine-member panel expected that final costs would exceed the 2005 estimates.

And the base-realignment panel had concerns about the potential for disruption of the electronic-warfare work performed at Fort Monmouth. It conditionally approved the shift of that work to Aberdeen, but required the secretary of defense to certify to Congress that the move would not harm the war effort.

"We found some problems with it," Battaglia said. "But we went ahead and still believe that closure was the right thing to do, because it would consolidate the whole major effort into one location."

The Defense Department has yet to present its report to Congress explaining how the Fort Monmouth closure and move would not undercut the war effort. A spokesman for the Army Materiel Command said the report should be submitted by month's end.

A union representing about 5,000 of the Fort Monmouth workers has filed suit in federal court in New Jersey seeking to block the closure, arguing that the conditional approval was illegal. The suit is pending.

"Even if they come out with a report, I wouldn't trust it," said John Poitras, president of Local 1904 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents Fort Monmouth workers.

He and others contend that the Army brass censored responses from base officials to questions posed about the move by the base-realignment commission.

"I've not been satisfied that this move can take place without harm to the soldiers," said Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat whose district includes Fort Monmouth. "This is not just ... some logistics depot or a place for troops to mobilize and that could be equally well done someplace else."

Army spokesmen at Fort Monmouth and in Washington declined to make officials available for interviews prior to the congressional hearing.

But in e-mail, a spokeswoman for the Army Materiel Command, which is coordinating the base move, said that base officials are recruiting in Maryland and neighboring states in anticipation of "potential losses on the order of 2,000 personnel over the next four years," largely because of the advanced age of the work force at Fort Monmouth. The average age is 50, and roughly half of the workers are expected to be eligible for early or regular retirement by the time the move must be completed in 2011.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who expects to testify at the congressional hearing, said he wants to impress upon lawmakers that the state is readying itself to accommodate the defense workers and their families.

Brown, who has led O'Malley administration efforts to plan for the base growth, said he understands the reluctance of Fort Monmouth workers but that the state hopes to ease their concerns by providing more information about life and opportunities in Maryland.

John P. Bellantoni, a 30-year logistics-management specialist at Fort Monmouth, said most of the base workers do not need more information - they're already being deluged with real estate ads and "glossy pictorials, all rose pictures about Maryland." He isn't having any of it.

"It's a very nice quality of life here on the Jersey Shore," Bellantoni said in a telephone interview. "I live less than two miles from the beach, very close to Asbury Park.

"Around here," he said, "you have so many more options, including, frankly, safer cities than Baltimore."

Maryland officials express sympathy for their New Jersey counterparts, and for the workers facing an unwelcome choice. But they insist that the time for debate is past.

Congress hasn't reversed a base-realignment decision since the independent commission was set up nearly 20 years ago.

But Holt, the New Jersey congressman, pointed out that the base-realignment plan that Congress approved in 2005 stipulated that Fort Monmouth's closure could occur only if it did not hurt the war on terrorism. So, if it turns out that the move would undermine the war effort, he said, "that would actually be consistent with the BRAC, rather than a reversal."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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