Politically, we're the wrong color of state for the current administration. —Dave Hardman, president and CEO of the Ogden/Weber Chamber
SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal in President Barack Obama's new federal budget for another round of military base closures starting in 2016 is being seen as a threat to Hill Air Force Base, Utah's largest employer.
"Politically, we're the wrong color of state for the current administration," said Dave Hardman, president and CEO of the Ogden/Weber Chamber, referring to Republican-dominated Utah's reputation as one of the nation's reddest states.
Hardman said it's hard to know whether that would have a major impact on a Base Realignment and Closure process, known as BRAC, initiated by a Democratic administration.
"That makes us a little more vulnerable," he said, especially since less populated states like Utah also don't carry the political weight of bigger states when it comes to protecting military installations.
"The dreaded question is, could we reduce the number of missions at Hill," Hardman said, cutting some of the 23,000 jobs at the base? "Could we close the whole base down? That's a stretch, but sadly, it's a possibility."
The 2013 Legislature appropriated about $650,000 for a new study on the economic impact of HAFB and other measures to gear up for another round of base closures, said Gary Harter, Gov. Gary Herbert's adviser for military and veterans affairs.
"I don't think any installation and local community, any state ever looks at a BRAC as not a threat to them," Harter said.
Because of the ongoing fiscal uncertainty in Washington, there was concern even before the president's budget was released, he said.
The administration is requesting $2.4 billion over the next five years, Politico reported. The Department of Defense said the new BRAC process would begin in 2015, with closures starting in 2016 "after the economy is projected to have more fully recovered."
The last round of base closures was in 2005.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose northern Utah district includes HAFB, said a new BRAC round would be counterproductive because it would add to the costs of a military already dealing with automatic budget cuts under so-called sequestration.
"It may save money in the long term, but in the short term, it's actually more expensive because there are costs of moving personnel and projects," Bishop said. "What these guys are looking for are short-term savings."
The congressman said that even though all of Utah's military installations, including HAFB, "would have a good chance from where they are to survive any kind of BRAC because of what they do, it's always a crapshoot when you start down that road."
Hardman blamed the budget crisis in the nation's capital for the BRAC proposal.
"Six months ago, we were told by leadership that there was no political will to have another BRAC," the chamber leader said. Now, he said, the military has become a target in the battle over balancing the federal budget.
"Both sides are going to be using the military as a football," Hardman said. "Certainly, it's easy to cut there."
Tage Flint, chairman of the Utah Defense Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for HAFB, said the 17,000 civilian workers at the base are still waiting to hear the details of coming furloughs and other impacts of the recent budget cuts.
Those cuts have already grounded at least one squadron at HAFB and are likely to slow the base's mission of readying aircraft and missiles, Flint said, reducing the readiness of the U.S. Air Force.
"You can't turn that switch off and turn it back on overnight," he said.
Flint said the alliance is already attempting "to get the word out to anybody who will listen" that HAFB shouldn't face more cutbacks if there's another round of base closures.
That includes commissioning a study on whether aircraft and missile servicing now performed at other military facilities around the world could be done more efficiently in Utah.
If bases are judged by what they actually accomplish in a new round of base closures, Flint said, "Hill should be fine with all that. The fear is that it becomes more of a political process."
Harter said a new round of base closures could also be an opportunity for HAFB.
"If some place closes, functions could be moved," the governor's military adviser said, describing a new BRAC as not only a chance to "lose something but also to win things because of how well Hill has done."
HAFB spokesman Richard Essary said in a statement that "it would be premature to comment on the proposed FY15 BRAC action or the impacts to Hill AFB."