Congressional deal adds breathing room to military budgets

February 10, 2014 Updated: February 10, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Military bases in the Pikes Peak region have an advantage in 2014 after a turbulent 18 months.

Thanks to an accord in Congress, leaders can plan.

"It's a sigh of relief," said Lt. Col. Frank Verdugo, the Air Force Academy's top money manager.

A set of battles punctuated by cuts called "sequestration" came in 2013, hitting a crescendo with the government shutdown triggered by congressional gridlock Oct. 1. Bases furloughed civilian employees, deferred maintenance on buildings, vehicles and weapons systems and in one instance, ran out of toilet paper.

The new $612 billion defense budget - down from $683 billion in 2011 - isn't lavishing spending on area bases. Fort Carson is deferring more than half of expected maintenance costs, and the academy won't see a thaw in its hiring freeze.

Across the region, budgets at bases are expected to hang at 2013 levels this year. But, in 2013, cuts to reduce military spending due to sequestration lopped money from the final months of the fiscal year. In 2014, the cuts are balanced across a full year, leveling maintenance spending and easing other restrictions.

Money for 2014 isn't flowing at full force, yet. The Air Force hasn't released final numbers to bases.

But leaders say they at least feel shielded from abrupt cuts.

The slimmer 2014 budget is causing the military to re-examine how it allocates tax money. Government budgets traditionally have been built based on previous year numbers, augmenting existing programs and funding new ones. Austerity changed that.

"We built our budget from the ground up looking at all our requirements and scrubbing our programs," Verdugo said.

At Fort Carson, the post has put out the "Help Wanted" sign.

Roderick Chisholm, deputy garrison commander, said the post has about 100 open civilian positions in its garrison workforce.

"Of those we have 60 approved to fill," he said.

And hammers are still ringing at Fort Carson, where Congress authorized $242 million in construction this year to house the post's helicopter brigade.

"At this point in time we are very fortunate," Chisholm said.

At the Air Force Academy, planners aren't looking at growing civilian payroll.

A targeted hiring freeze will continue, aimed at cutting civilian worker costs by 10 percent through September. Verdugo said the savings are expected through attrition rather than cuts.

The academy is slimming personnel costs now, with 50 open positions that are going unfilled.

The response to the new budget at Peterson Air Force Base's Air Force Space Command is measured. The command expects to get final numbers on its 2014 budget in the next few weeks.

Leaders are happy to have budget certainty this year, but they want to see longer term plans solidified.

Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, who heads up strategic planning for the command, said the budget deal will help deal with two years of spending, with money appropriated for 2014 and a deal in principal set for 2015.

That is helping the command launch new communication and missile-tracking satellites. The command is also planning to start working on a new satellite tracking radar.

But future impacts of sequestration and other Pentagon budget cuts topping $900 billion over the next decade remain unknown. That's a problem for Space Command, where satellite development programs can last a decade.

"We can't get carried away," Teague said.

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