01/19/07 — Officials: N.C. must get set for next BRAC

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Officials: N.C. must get set for next BRAC

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 19, 2007 1:53 PM

Meeting Thursday at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs spent much of the morning examining how it can best protect the state's military bases during the inevitable next round of realignments and closings.

"There will be another BRAC (base realignment and closure). North Carolina came out pretty good in this one (in 2005), but there will be another one coming. We can't let up," commission chairman Troy Pate of Goldsboro said.

And the best way to protect the bases is to make North Carolina more attractive to the U.S. Department of Defense, commission member and retired Army Maj. Gen. Hugh Overholt said, as he presented a list of more than 20 goals, recommendations and requests for Gov. Mike Easley.

"It would be pretty ambitious to say we'll get this all done in this session of the legislature," he said. "But it's a good plan to work from."

At the top of those concerns, the 37 members of the commission agreed, is base encroachment -- local communities allowing too much growth and development around bases' immediate perimeters.

In Goldsboro and Wayne County, it hasn't been a large problem for Seymour Johnson, but around Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, Fort Bragg in Fayetteville and the Marine Corps Cherry Point Air Station in Cherry Point, such growth has created some difficulties.

"The city and the county (Goldsboro and Wayne) both have been very cooperative and they've stepped up and made some tough decisions," Pate said. "Whatever they felt like needed to be done to protect that bases, they've done it."

To help further insulate the state's bases from such problems in the future, the commission is asking the governor to support the efforts of state and federal programs and private land trusts to set aside land around military bases for conservation purposes. It also is urging him to support legislation to establish a Military Base Protection Trust Fund to acquire property or easements around installations that cannot be protected by these other means.

One of the primary programs working toward this goal has been the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Chairing its board of directors is another Goldsboro resident, Phil Baddour, who explained that because of the location of many of the state's bases, the lands around them often need protection for water quality reasons.

Since 2003, he said, Clean Water has provided $30 million to protect 32,352 acres adjacent to major military installations, including Seymour Johnson.

"We certainly view the fund as a very important tool to protect our military bases against encroachment," Baddour said.

The commission's second priority is making sure the state's infrastructure -- schools, water and sewer -- is keeping pace with the needs of the military bases, particularly as they change and grow.

"The schools are certainly important to the military. The greater good of education certainly serves well our military bases here," Overholt said. "But I look at water and sewer probably being our largest problem in sustaining our military right now."

Again, however, those are problems that Seymour Johnson and Goldsboro and Wayne County have largely been able to avoid.

"They (the city and the county) have been very cooperative," Pate said. "They have all kinds of mutual pacts (with the base) for fire protection and stuff like that. They work together on water systems.

"It's just been a very good marriage. The city and the county have just done the things they need to do.

"They've further insulated Seymour Johnson and that was a big help during the BRAC process. There were so many things addressed during the BRAC process and the city and county just responded in every instance where they could."

Other goals include the return of a portion of the state gasoline tax collected at the military bases for use in quality of life improvements, an alternative fuel use incentive program to encourage the use of surrounding land for farming and a joint military/civilian alternative fuel program, an easing of state hurdles for professionally licensed military spouses to begin practicing, help from the state to create tighter motorcycle restrictions for military personnel, a new state Cabinet Office on Military Affairs, a legitimate banking alternative to payday lending and additional radar in the eastern region to enhance air traffic safety and coordination with the military.

But that's not all the commission is focused on.

With the military bases accounting for 7 percent ($20 billion) of the state's total economy, economic development also is a large piece of North Carolina's military puzzle, Overholt said.

One key component of that is the continuation of the no-state-income-tax proposal on retirement salaries.

Such legislation, both retired and active duty members said, would not only entice retirees to move to North Carolina, but it also would make the state a more desirable destination for those still in the service.

"I suspect you can make an economic model that shows what the state gets from retired personnel living here, is more than the state gets from their taxes," Overholt said. "It's very clear this is a top priority."

The other top economic priority is creating a stronger military industrial complex in North Carolina -- a task that the North Carolina Military Foundation, a new advisory committee to the governor, has been given.

Right now, executive director Mike Austin said, North Carolina ranks No. 3 in the country in active duty personnel, but No. 25 in the value of its Department of Defense contracts -- a gap that needs to be closed.

"North Carolina has many assets that we need to figure out how to capitalize on," he said. "This can be an engine for economic growth."

The bottom line, Pate said, is if the governor and the legislature can help carry out some of the goals outlined in Thursday meeting, the state's military bases will be well-positioned for the future.

"It's a long laundry list. Some of them are doable and some of them are not doable," he said. "But we get good cooperation from the governor and the legislature. I think everybody is attuned to the military and to doing what they can to make sure the military stays in North Carolina."