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MacDill remains on base hit list

MacDill Air Force Base moved closer to a possible shutdown Friday when the commission considering military cutbacks voted to keep the Tampa facility on its hit list for the time being. Although the decision is only preliminary, it is the first formal action the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has taken on MacDill. The final recommendation goes to President Bush on July 1.

"It stays on the list, but I want to make it clear that the commission still has flexibility as far as MacDill," commission chairman James Courter said in Washington.

Only one member of the seven-member panel voted against Courter's motion to keep the base under consideration for full or partial closure.

In its deliberations Friday, the commission addressed two key arguments backers of MacDill have been using.

First, it decided to spare Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. Some commissioners had suggested closing Homestead instead of MacDill, but on Thursday the panel received a classified briefing, apparently about Homestead's strategic importance and its proximity to Cuba and Central America.

Commissioner Howard "Bo" Callaway said there are "good strategic reasons for keeping Homestead open."

Second, the commission continued to focus on ways to lower the cost of shutting down MacDill. Supporters of the base have held out hope that the cost of complete closure _ estimated at $220-million _ would be prohibitive.

But the commission is actively investigating a plan to move MacDill's two military planning units to another base with unused office space. That would allow the Defense Department to avoid the cost of building a new home for the two units.

One option is to move U.S. Central Command headquarters from MacDill to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. The commission is awaiting a report from the Air Force on the feasibility of that move.

The panel did not explore what to do with the second planning operation at MacDill, the U.S. Special Operations headquarters. Nor is the idea of moving Central Command a certainty _ at least if Callaway has his way.

"I think Norm Schwarzkopf did a lot better job at MacDill than he would have at Andrews," Callaway said, referring to the Desert Storm commander who leads Central Command.

"I'm for moving things out (of Washington), not putting them back," Callaway said.

Members of the MacDill Response Team, a task force formed to keep MacDill open, said they are pinning their hopes on a meeting with members of the commission visiting the base Monday for an inspection.

"The announcement (about Homestead) comes as a bit of a surprise," said Al Austin, chairman of the MacDill Response Team. "We don't feel MacDill meets the criteria for closing as much as Homestead."

Homestead, an operational or battle-ready base, houses two squadrons of F-16s on a 3,345-acre tract about 35 miles south of Miami. With 8,721 employees, it is also headquarters to an air-rescue squadron and U.S. Customs officials involved in drug interdiction efforts off the South Florida coast.

In South Florida, nobody was complaining about the news from the commission.

"Basically, it's a good feeling we're going to be here," said Sgt. Curt Libengood, Homestead public affairs officer. "It's also a feeling of great relief for the community."

Initially, the Defense Department recommended partially closing MacDill as part of a plan to shut down 43 bases and shrink operations at 27 others. But the independent commission changed course, putting MacDill and nearly three dozen other bases under consideration for full closure.

The commission began paring the list Friday. Along with Homestead, the panel decided to remove from its hit list Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., and Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. It also spared two Army bases _ Fort Richardson in Alaska and Fort Drum near Watertown, N.Y.

In trimming the list, the commission has two things in mind: getting rid of redundant bases and saving money. "Clearly, there is a relationship between facilities that have a similar mission," Courter said.

_ Information from Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and the Associated Press was used in this report.