The era of military thriftiness is about to hit troops at MacDill Air Force Base and across Florida in a place they may have thought immune from the budget ax - their personal vehicles.
The Pentagon has decreed Florida will no longer have a vehicle-processing center where troops being reassigned, including those ordered overseas, could bring their cars for transfer or storage, the U.S. Transportation Command says.
Starting May 1, troops who formerly took their vehicles to a center in Orlando will now have to drive to Atlanta to take advantage of the free service.
The story behind the military's decision to trim costs in this little-known program is told in highly unusual bid protests of a defense contract affecting up to 66,000 U.S. troops and their families around the world each year.
They touch on the Unification Church, China and the reclusive North Korean regime, and counterclaims of religious bigotry. At the center of it all is a Georgia company that won the contract, its incumbent rival says, despite incorporatingjust two months before submitting its bid.
To be sure, the protests mean little to troops who will now have to drive from Tampa to Atlanta to drop off their cars.
"I think it's going to be a real burden to people who get deployed or move," said Marlis Rivera, a Clearwater woman whose husband is in the Air Force and serves at MacDill working in security. "Military people get transferred all the time. Moving is hard enough."
This will mark the first time in 15 years that Florida has no vehicle-processing center, according to the company that provided the service during that time. In 2013, 2,551 cars were either dropped off or picked up in Orlando, the Transportation Command says.
Closing the Orlando center and eight others outside the state will save the military up to $9 million annually and is necessary because fewer troops need the service, a spokeswoman for the Illinois-based Transportation Command said.
At any moment, 10,000 personal troop vehicles are in transit on trucks or ships and 8,500 are in storage, says American Auto Logistics, the New Jersey firm that has provided the service.
It's big business. International Auto Logistics of Brunswick, Ga., may have seemed like a long shot to win a contract worth up to $919 million over five years.
IAL was formed in August 2012 and bid on the contract about two months later, according to federal court papers. But its parent company, International Auto Processing, is an international firm that transported cars for auto manufacturers.
IAL won with a bid that was $38 million lower than the bid by AAL. IAL said it would work with subcontractors and its parent, all of which, it said, were experienced in moving vehicles.
The Transportation Command said it is confident IAL can do the work, while acknowledging AAL has superior experience. IAL won the bid in late 2013.
AAL filed protests with the General Accountability Office and then in federal court, saying the bid award was wrong and questioning IAL's ability to do the work.
"Contracting with an inexperienced company that has no infrastructure to conduct a complex global logistical operation ... for 66,000 individual customers each year presents a significant risk of nonperformance. The burden of that nonperformance in this case will be felt by military service members and their families," Ray Ebeling, AAL's chief, told the Tampa Bay Times.
But the government says competition is in the public interest.
"The government has not invoked national security because poor contract performance will result in no more than inconvenience" for customers, Department of Justice lawyers said in court filings defending the bid award. The Transportation Command "has decided the government can tolerate a small increase in risk to privately owned passenger vehicles to save a significant sum."
The protests detailed alleged ties between the parent firm, IAP Inc., and China, North Korea and the Unification Church, founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the late South Korean evangelist.
Among alleged ties, according to AAL: The chief financial officer of its rival's parent company is a Unification Church member.
And IAP chairman Park Sang Kwon has close ties to North Korea, having visited the nation more than 200 times, and has been granted honorary North Korean citizenship, says AAL. He also is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
IAP and related entities, AAL says, have an ownership interest in a Chinese firm, Panda Property Development. Panda executives have ties to Chinese communists, AAL says.
Those Chinese ties, AAL says, pose a national security risk. IAL, given the nature of its work, will have information on troop deployments, AAL says.
Transportation Command described the claims as "entertaining" but without merit.
IAL responded, "These assertions are irrelevant, untrue and arguably bigoted."
"IAL remains unaware of any statute or regulation that prohibits the federal government from doing business with companies (with) members of the Unification Church," said the company, criticizing AAL's "improper attempt to substitute its self-serving judgment" for Transportation Command's own.
AAL lost its bid protests but says it might yet file an appeal.
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432.