Cash crunch forces Army base to send contract workers home

WASHINGTON—Robbing Peter to pay Paul is a historic tool in the arcane process of balancing military budgets, but this year Army commanders seem to be taking early and unusual measures to keep the lights on and basic services working.

At one base, Fort Rucker, Ala., the home of Army Aviation for half a century, temporary stop-work orders were issued Monday to 120 contract employees, who were sent home to wait without pay for further developments.

Disappearing with those employees were such services as mowing the grass, maintaining the chemical-parts washers for flight line mechanics, providing government cars and the gasoline they run on, photography and graphic services, photocopying services, storage of household goods for families on the move and counseling for families in crisis.

Officers at Fort Rucker even lost service to their hand-held BlackBerry e-mail devices.

One of the key goals of Army transformation is to privatize upward of 60,000 jobs, replacing uniformed soldiers with civilians under contract and thus freeing soldiers to join the global war on terrorism. But if the Army runs short of money at year's end, the civilians are sent home and the jobs go undone. The budget year for the military ends Sept. 30.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson described the actions at Fort Rucker as "remedial measures that have no impact on the safety and health of our soldiers and families." He added that Fort Rucker had to take more and stronger measures than other bases have to date.

The Army's new head of installation management, Lt. Gen. David Barno, said he'd "redirected $20 million to Fort Rucker" on Thursday to help it deal with its shortage of cash and that he expected that some of the money would be used to re-establish contract services.

Barno told Knight Ridder he was in the process of "talking face to face with all the facilities managers in the Army, by video conference." He said he talked to 11 managers Thursday and that "none of them were at the point of stopping any services."

Barno blamed part of the problem on large increases in the cost of fuel this year. The Army has spent $720 million more on fuel than had been budgeted. Fuel is a key expense at Fort Rucker, which trains nearly 3,000 helicopter pilots a year for the Army and other services.

"In none of this is there any risk to our ability to fight the wars we are fighting," Barno said. He also said the developments didn't pose any real threat to the Army's job-privatization program.

"What we don't want is soldiers out there cutting grass when we are in the middle of a war," said Barno, a former U.S. ground commander in Afghanistan.

The end-of-the-year money problem is perennial, and hardly confined to the Army. In past years, the Navy has been forced to ground squadrons of jet fighters when it ran out of money for fuel.

The problem is compounded this year because Congress recessed for its summer break without passing the Defense Appropriations Act. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., stopped consideration of the bill after the White House objected to provisions that would have required drafting new rules for the treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other facilities.