Ventura County leaders go on the defensive against BRAC
Ventura County’s military, civic and business leaders are getting ready to save their naval base. Again.
State Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, hosted a forum Friday at CSU Channel Islands on the military and economic importance of Naval Base Ventura County. The idea, he said at one point, was to talk about how to “dust off the old war plan” that county leaders used to defend the base against previous threats to close part of it or greatly reduce the workforce.
In both 1995 and 2005, during the federal government’s last two Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, efforts, Naval Base Ventura County was on the list of bases to be closed or to have some of its functions moved elsewhere. In both cases, Congress ultimately spared the base, after intense lobbying efforts by people from Ventura County.
The Department of Defense wants another round of BRAC in 2017. Congress is resisting that, so far, but Ventura County is preparing, just in case. Even if there is no BRAC in 2017, there will be an effort at some point to streamline the military by closing bases.
“We could not pass a BRAC in the House right now, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, that you shouldn’t be preparing,” U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, told the 80 or so forum attendees.
McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, delivered the keynote speech. He said the military is being “hollowed out” by budget cuts, and pointed to the declining share of military spending as a portion of the federal budget over the past half century.
“Why we’re even talking about BRAC is because of the situation we’re in financially,” McKeon said.
After McKeon’s speech, three panels of military, political and economic experts discussed the history of BRAC in the region, what to do about the next round of cuts, and the economic impact of Naval Base Ventura County.
There was wide agreement that the base is of immense importance to the region’s economy. It employs about 17,000 people, both service members and civilians, and is responsible for at least 30,000 total jobs in the region.
The total potential jobs impact is a bit more than the number of jobs that were lost in Ventura County in the recession, said panelist Bill Watkins, the director of the Center for Economic Research & Forecasting at California Lutheran University. If the base were to close, or have its workforce significantly cut, it would be “an economic disaster,” he said.
It’s possible to imagine putting former Navy land at Port Hueneme and Point Mugu to productive use, Watkins said. The Port of Hueneme could expand into Navy territory. A regional civilian airport could take over the Point Mugu airfield.
But neither of those is likely to happen, Watkins said, because the people of Ventura County would fight those developments tooth and nail.
“The politics are such that I think it would just be abandoned,” he said.
If the federal government does study bases for potential closures again, the economic impacts won’t be the most important factor. The military utility of each base function, and whether that function could be performed better and cheaper somewhere else, is at the top of their list, said Benjamin Montoya, a retired Navy rear admiral who was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the 1995 BRAC commission.
In that light, Ventura County leaders should be a little worried about the future of the county’s Seabee base, Montoya said. There are two Seabee bases now, one at Port Hueneme and one in Gulfport, Miss. The Navy typically shuts down many Seabee battalions in peacetime; it has already gone from nine active battalions to six as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
“I’d be concerned about having two Seabee bases,” Montoya said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if those two bases were set to compete against each other.”