The independent commission weighing military base closings said Friday it is now studying the complete shutdown of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and 22 other installations. MacDill previously was targeted for partial closure by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who recommended to the commission in April that 43 bases be closed and operations at another 28 be reduced as part of an effort to cut military forces by 25 percent.
The commission's list _ which recommends cutbacks at 13 bases and closure or cutbacks at 23 others _ will be compared with Cheney's recommendations with an eye toward possibly substituting some bases for those the secretary picked. A final compilation taken from both lists is due to President Bush on July 1.
"We wanted to let everyone know now that there is at least a possibility that their installation could be slated for closure or realignment," said Cary Walker, chief spokesman for the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
By expanding its scope, the commission is sure to draw heavy criticism from communities in which once-safe bases are now threatened. The panel has already been deluged by hundreds of letters and hours of testimony from supporters of bases on the original list. These representatives frequently suggest other bases as less vital than those on their home turf.
The chairman of the seven-member base closing panel, former U.S. Rep. James Courter, has boasted of the commission's openness, but the additions were compiled in private discussions among commission members this week. The commission did not provide any rationale for adding MacDill or the other bases. That will come in public meetings beginning June 6.
"I want to emphasize that this is not a list of closures," said Courter, instead calling it a "wide array of options."
"I have said all along that we won't rubber-stamp the defense secretary's proposals," he said in a written statement.
The commission was set up by Congress to allow bases to be closed without the meddling of powerful lawmakers. Once the final list is sent to Bush and Congress, it must be accepted in total or rejected.
Cheney's list of bases would save $1.7-billion a year after the closures are complete. Congress approved an earlier round of cuts in 1989 to eliminate or reduce operations at 91 bases, saving $5.6-billion over 20 years.
The Defense Department says it evaluated installations for the list with an emphasis on their military importance in light of perceived diminished threats from the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
New list brings
A complete shutdown of MacDill is what many of the base's supporters have always thought to be a long-range goal of the Defense Department. The earlier closure list recommended deactivating the Air Force's 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill and closing all runways on the base. Advocates for the facility say that it doesn't make sense to shut down the airstrip and move MacDill's F-16 jet fighters but leave the base's planning offices behind.
In addition to the training wing, MacDill is home to the U.S. Central Command, led by Desert Storm Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and the U.S. Special Operations Command. Also on base is a hospital and commissary; as many as 250,000 military retirees and their dependents use MacDill's services.
All of that would be gone if the entire base is shut down, and the area would lose the 8,912 military and civilian jobs at the base. By contrast, partial closure would cost an estimated 3,185 jobs.
No details were provided Friday on how long it would take to shut down the 50-year-old base. Under a scenario of partial closure, the Air Force estimated that the airstrip would be closed by 1994.
Base supporters said that putting MacDill on a list for complete closure actually helps their argument to save the base. The Air Force says it would cost $220-million to shut down the entire base, more than the combined costs of closing the five other tactical bases that are on Cheney's hit list.
Moreover, the total shutdown proposal forces the commission to contemplate the impact of the loss of the base hospital. "It puts the MacDill issue in focus," said U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, a leading defender of the base.
Young, a Pinellas County Republican, has devised a new strategy to save the hospital. Language in a spending bill he helped to draft would prohibit the Defense Department from reducing medical personnel at base hospitals, thus ensuring it would stay open. The provision may not survive the appropriations process, however.
Young argues that closing the hospital will force military retirees to go to a more expensive health care provider that the government will have to pay for.
As for the airstrip, Air Force officials say that crowded air space and development nearby make MacDill less desirable for pilots than some other bases. Sale of MacDill's prime waterfront land would bring in one of the best returns among 16 tactical bases that the Air Force studied.
The Air Force's cost savings, however, are based on partial closure of the base. They did not recommend full closure because it would cost almost 10 times more than partial shutdown. The environmental cleanup at the base could drive the cost even higher.
Hope for some,
anger for others
To the supporters of bases Cheney wants to close, the commission's list is good news because it provides alternate bases to theirs.
For example, Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami and the naval training centers in Great Lakes, Ill., and San Diego are on the commission's new list.
MacDill's supporters suggest the commission could close Homestead and shift its operations to MacDill. The Air Force initially listed Homestead for closure, but the service's final recommendations spared the base because of its strategic importance in the fight against drug smuggling.
The addition of the two naval training centers is significant to supporters of the Orlando Naval Training Center, which Cheney had slated for closure. Orlando's backers have urged the commission to consider closing one of the other centers, arguing the Florida base is less expensive to operate.
The panel's expanded scope also takes in possible closure of Army Corps of Engineers facilities; virtually every major base in New York state; two Alaska bases where troops are taught to fight the Soviets; and five naval homeports that critics say are unnecessary.
The new list also includes bases in the districts of politically powerful lawmakers: Fort McCoy, in the Wisconsin district of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin; and Meridian (Miss.) Naval Air Station in the hometown of House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman R. V. "Sonny" Montgomery.
Base closings: a summary
WHAT. A special commission studying proposed military base closings served notice Friday that 23 more domestic bases and operations, including MacDill Air Force Base, are preliminary candidates for closure. Nine others are up for cutbacks. The commission emphasized that the list is only a "menu of options."
WHEN. The commission's final recommendations, due July 1, are subject to all-or-nothing approval by the president and Congress.
WHY. This year's base closing process, the most ambitious since World War II, is intended to bring military facilities in line with planned cuts of 521,000 service people over the next five years.
MacDILL. The base's annual economic impact in the Tampa Bay area is estimated at $808-million. It's the third largest employer in Hillsborough County.
_ Information from Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and the Associated Press was used in this report.