The federal sequester’s effects on Liberty County’s economy remain to be seen, but a business panel on Thursday sent messages that are at odds with previous statements on the matter.
The Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter hosted the discussion, which was held in conjunction with a Liberty County Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues breakfast.
The participants acknowledged that financial hardship looms for about 3,000 civilian employees who face furloughs and 20 percent cuts from their paychecks beginning April 22 and running through the end of the fiscal year or until the cuts are averted — but the overall message was more positive than before.
“We are affected by Fort Stewart, but we as a city and a county are going to be OK,” Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said. “I just don’t want businesses to say that they have to close down or really constrict their activities because of all of the stuff that is taking place.”
In previous discussions, Thomas has said the sequester’s effects could be devastating to the economy.
“The biggest thing that affects us as a city and a county is that bottom line,” Thomas said.
Where the military cuts back its services, the local private sector may be tapped to fill in gaps, he said, citing day cares, health-care services and providers and commissary shops.
Other panelists included chamber member Marcus Sack, business owner George Holtzman, Fort Stewart-Hunter Garrison Commander Col. Kevin Gregory, Fort Stewart Rear Chief of Staff Col. Scott Jackson, and Brooke Childers, district representative for the office of Rep. Jack Kingston.
Stewart and the sequester
Gregory and Jackson acknowledged the cuts and difficult decisions associated with them. But Jackson also alluded to the fact that the deployed number of soldiers have helped buffer the installation, and he said troops will begin returning this summer.
“Currently, we are at our lowest point in deployed-strength numbers, meaning we have deployed the maximum number we are going to deploy,” Jackson said. “We have approximately 9,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and other places in the world, and that’s about as big as it’s going to get.”
Troops will make their returns starting in June, he said, adding that they estimate about 4,500 families of these soldiers remain in the area.
“Life’s not going to disappear from Fort Stewart because their families are still here, unlike in Desert Storm where a lot of families went home,” he said.
“The bottom line is everybody’s going to be affected,” he said, explaining the installation has taken about a 30 percent cut, and it primarily will be felt in health-care services.
Winn Army Community Hospital has seen about a $9 million decrease in its operating budget, which will affect health-care service. While the same types of services offered will remain, the appointment capacity will decrease as a result of the impending furlough due to the fact that 1,000 staff members at Winn are civilians.
“If you remove about 20 percent of the workforce, that’s going to result in a reduction of anywhere from about 30-40 percent of available appointments in a week,” Jackson said. “What we think that will result in is approximately 300-600 referrals off-post, namely to your urgent care or to routine medical services off-post, so if you’re in the Hinesville medical service, sequestration is not really that bad.”
To help buffer local businesses from the effects of the sequester, Sack challenged attendees to spend 10 percent more locally than they currently do.
For every $100 spent at a local business, $45 stays in the local community, whereas only $15 remains when spent at big-box retailers, he added.
Safeguarding against closure
Holtzman spoke about the importance of building a strong, involved community as the best defense for Fort Stewart during future base realignments and closures.
On Friday, John Conger, the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, told the House Armed Services Committee that another round of base realignments and closings should be part of any military-reshaping strategy.
He said the Army is reducing its active-duty end strength from 570,000 to 490,000 by 2020, which means there will be a surplus of installations, according to the American Forces Press Service.
Holtzman said safeguarding against closures or reductions is essential to the area’s economy.
“Quality of life is so important. … those things we can do to get more warm, fuzzy feelings with the military and their families,” Holtzman said.
He also said the sequester has affected real estate, as home sales are “only about 20 percent of what they were this time last year.”