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3 named to accompany base closure inspection team

When two members of the Bi-Partisan Base Closure and Realignment Commission visit Tampa next week to inspect MacDill Air Force Base, they can expect to get an earful. Of the three key officials expected to accompany commissioners Jim Courter and James C. Smith II, one supports a plan for partial closure at MacDill, another has led the fight against it and the third has supported both viewpoints.

The host for the inspection will be Brig. Gen. Ben Nelson Jr., commander of MacDill's 56th Tactical Training Fighter Wing. While sympathetic to the community's concern about the effects of any closure of MacDill, Nelson is on record as saying he supports planned deactivation of the wing and transfer of the base's F-16 fighters to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

Following a May 30 invitation from the commission, Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman has agreed to take part in the inspection, according to Bob Buckhorn, the mayor's special assistant. After Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced in April that MacDill would be realigned and lose 3,185 positions, Freedman quickly moved to appoint a task force called the MacDill Response Team to fight the recommendation.

Also scheduled to attend Monday's inspection is Congressman Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, whose 7th District includes the 5,767-acre base, said spokesman Reggie Garcia. Gibbons initially supported Cheney's plan as necessary to help reduce Pentagon spending by 25 percent. But Gibbons altered his stance when he became convinced that deactivating the wing at MacDill was merely a preliminary step to closing the base.

Last month, Gibbons told the commission that he believed the Air Force was seeking realignment at MacDill because it was tired of footing the bills for the multiservice commands with headquarters at the base: the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.

Base officials said Thursday that representatives of both commands would be invited to take part in the inspection and briefings of the commissioners.

The commission is required by July 1 to give President Bush a list of closings and realignments, which Bush and the Congress must accept or reject in its entirety.

In a surprise announcement Friday, the commission said it had decided to study the feasibility of a total shutdown of MacDill and 22 other bases. Cheney originally had targeted 43 installations for closure and 27 other facilities, including MacDill, for partial closure.

At a May 24 presentation to the commission in Jacksonville, the response team argued that Defense Department projections of big savings from partially closing MacDill were flawed. But commission chairman Courter, a former New Jersey member of Congress who chaired the House Military Reform Caucus, missed most of the presentation. Smith, an engineer who served as a staff member for the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, did not attend the Jacksonville hearing.