TAMPA — With U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command firmly in place, MacDill Air Force Base appears to be spared major cuts in a proposed five-year budget unveiled Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"I don't think they're going to be affected, but that has yet to be seen," said U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, who is on the House Armed Services Committee.
Still, when it comes to a base with an annual economic impact estimated at $5 billion, Tampa Bay area leaders have no plans to relax.
"As our community saw in '91, we believed we were safe and the next thing we knew we were on that (base closure) list," said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which recently added staff to track military issues. "We're determined not to let that happen again."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in a statement that, "fortunately, MacDill AFB is not under consideration for realignment or change due to the important missions" based there. She was pleased that Hagel's budget invests in special operations and that Central Command would still play a "pivotal role" due to instability in the Middle East.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, MacDill has seen more than $1 billion in new construction. Officials break ground Thursday on a 90,000-square-foot home for the Joint Special Operations University, an educational hub for U.S., international and interagency personnel.
Castor said she plans to work with Tampa Bay's congressional delegation "to ensure the strategic MacDill missions remain on track and we consider new assignments."
If anything, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, the bay area could benefit from Hagel's plan to maintain funds for cyber warfare. The region has a lot of private defense contractors with that expertise, and the University of South Florida is ramping up a curriculum in cyber security.
Hagel's proposal does call for scaling back subsidies to military commissaries and increasing health insurance deductibles and certain co-payments for some military retirees and some relatives of active personnel.
It also would slow down the growth of housing allowances, which are based on military pay grades, dependents and rents charged around the base where personnel are stationed. Not clear is whether that growth would keep pace with rising bay area real estate values.
"That would be the critical factor in what kind of effect it had," said Vicki Wagner, a broker-saleswoman and part owner at Keller Williams Realty Tampa Properties.
About 20 percent of Wagner's business comes from military families looking for homes, often in Riverview, Valrico and FishHawk Ranch, but increasingly in northwestern Hillsborough. Most factor the housing allowance into the payments they take on.
At lunch spots near MacDill Monday, uniformed personnel generally said they had heard little about the proposed cuts and declined to discuss anything they knew. Recently, nearly 900 of MacDill's 3,800 military personnel received notices saying their positions with the 6th Air Mobility Wing could be vulnerable as the Air Force shrinks after the war in Afghanistan.
Off the base, a leader of TAMPA — the Tampa Area Marine Parents Association — said proposed cuts to benefits would hit "hard-working grunts and younger families" especially hard.
"They're not making any money as it is. How do you keep your head above water?" said Cyd Deathe, the group's executive director. "It's just so sad. We ask them to put their lives on the line, and we pay them and treat them like second-class citizens."
Nugent likewise said any cuts to benefits deserve a hard look.
"I'm not real happy when we start to try to balance our budget on the backs on the men and women who serve," he said.
Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.