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Panel suggests closing MacDill may be cheap

In a blow to supporters of MacDill Air Force Base, members of the panel weighing its fate suggested Thursday that the Tampa installation could be shut down for less than the Pentagon's estimate. MacDill supporters had hoped the cost of complete shutdown _ put at $220-million by the Air Force _ would discourage the commission from closing it.

But Duane Cassidy, a member of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, pointed out that the cost was based on building a new home for the headquarters of two military planning units stationed at MacDill.

If the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations offices could be put in an existing building at another base, Cassidy reasoned, the cost of closing MacDill could fall well below $220-million.

That could make the closure of MacDill a more attractive option.

"Gen. Schwarzkopf will probably shoot me when he hears me say that," Cassidy said, referring to the Desert Storm leader who heads Central Command.

Mark Flynn, a Tampa Chamber of Commerce official attending the meeting, disputed the staff's analysis in an interview. "It's going to cost way more than $220-million," he said.

Among other things, the military would need to build satellite dishes and underground bunkers to maintain the specialized operations at MacDill, Flynn said. Base supporters also have noted that cleaning up hazardous wastes on the base could drive up the cost.

The seven-member commission met all day Thursday, hearing their staff's analysis of the way the Air Force chose MacDill and other bases for cutbacks. The staff said the Air Force generally did a good job.

The commission's task now is to decide among three options: shut down the base entirely, close its airstrip or leave the base open. Recommendations are due to President Bush on July 1, and the commission is expected to begin paring the list as early as today.

The Air Force recommended partially closing MacDill, dismissing complete shutdown because of the high cost. But last week the panel put the Tampa Bay area on notice that it was considering a complete shutdown. On Thursday, the commission members frequently challenged their staff and the Pentagon's decisions _ including the recommendations to cut operations at MacDill. The discussion yielded both the pros and the cons of the closure.

Cassidy told his colleagues that the base's proximity to the Air Force's Avon Park bombing range made training "far superior" to that at Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. The Pentagon wants to spare Homestead, however, because of its strategic placement close to Cuba.