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Originally published Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 5:15 PM

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Military-base closures, mergers save less money than Pentagon projected

The military-base closures and realignments that prompted the merger of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base two years ago cost more than the Pentagon predicted, according to the Government Accountability Office.

McClatchy Newspapers

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TACOMA — The round of military-base closures and realignments that resulted in the merger of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in Washington state two years ago is proving more costly than the Pentagon predicted, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

That nationwide Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) effort was supposed to save the government $36 billion by 2025. But the Pentagon spent more money than it projected on upfront costs, and the BRAC round likely will result in less than $10 billion in savings through 2025, according to the report issued last week.

Fort Lewis and McChord officially merged in 2010, with the Army taking the lead. The base is a relatively small part of the GAO study. It appears as one of 12 joint bases that were created out of the 2005 BRAC.

All together, the dozen joint bases are leading to less savings than the Pentagon projected. In 2005, it said the joint bases would save $2.3 billion over 20 years. Instead, the savings likely will total about $249 million, the GAO wrote.

A separate project to consolidate medical services for McChord airmen also appears in the report. It is projected to save the Defense Department $150.8 million through 2025, down from the Pentagon's 2005 savings estimate of $164.4 million.

At Lewis-McChord, leaders still expect to save money over time by consolidating services. The Army and Air Force have consolidated 46 installation support services, such as recreation, public works, contracting and emergency services.

"It's too early to calculate with any certainty our short- or long-term cost savings," base spokesman Joe Piek said. "That said, we believe we have gained some notable efficiencies."

Some military and political leaders have said turning Lewis-McChord into a joint base and consolidating it into the West Coast's largest military installation has secured its future.

The GAO plans at least one more study on the 2005 BRAC. It is expected to offer recommendations on how the lessons from the last round could be used to ensure cost savings on future consolidations.

The GAO described the round that led to the creation of Lewis-McChord as the fifth and most complex base-closure effort since 1988. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time it would provide the military with lasting savings that could be steered into weapons programs.

But the 2005 BRAC was different from its predecessors in that the military advocated for "transformation and jointness" in carrying out its goals. That meant some of the 182 projects recommended in that round actually were expected to raise the cost of doing business at certain bases.

The Pentagon's upfront costs were projected at $21 billion. Instead, the Defense Department spent $35.1 billion on construction and consolidation.

By contrast, the nation's previous four BRAC rounds cost a total of $25 billion, the GAO wrote.

The office found that 14 projects accounted for more than 75 percent of the unforeseen costs. The consolidation of military medical services around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center into Bethesda, Md., for example, cost $1.7 billion more than the Pentagon budgeted in 2005.

The next four greatest cost increases were:

• Closing leased offices for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency at a cost of $2.5 billion instead of $1.1 billion.

• Closing Fort Monmouth, N.J., at a cost of $1.9 billion instead of $1.1 billion.

• Creating the San Antonio Regional Medical Center at a cost of $2 billion instead of $1 billion.

• Realigning Army maneuver training at Fort Benning, Ga., at a cost of $1.7 billion instead of $773 million.

Gary Brackett, who leads the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce military-affairs committee, said BRAC rounds typically lead to expensive upfront costs followed by long-term savings. He said that's one reason lawmakers should not consider another round as a short-term fix to projected Pentagon budget reductions in the coming months.

"BRAC rounds are typically slow to produce savings," Brackett said. "It's a big organization that you have to move with hundreds of thousands of employees."

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