August 19, 2013
As more and deeper budget cuts loom, the fate of the military’s quality-of-life programs will be left to the individual services, defense officials say.
“I don’t think that we at this point in time would say to the services, ‘You need to cut these six programs,’ ” Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told Military Times in an Aug. 6 interview. “But what we will do, based upon the resources available, is talk about where the emphasis needs to be … and the services will determine how they can best support that for the members they serve.”
Defense officials will not even prioritize the programs, she said, noting that the services and their installations know what’s important to their populations, and some programs are unique based on missions, requirements and the demographics of those installations.
“That really needs to be, in our estimation, a service call, not with an ax, but clearly with a very precise knife, to know how we are affecting the people that we serve,” she said.
Wright, recently nominated to permanently fill the undersecretary job, said she understands that families are concerned about the budget crunch and the uncertainty facing DoD.
“The uncertainty the department is facing is probably the most that it’s ever been, so it makes everything very difficult,” she said.
Officials are still compiling the results of two working groups that looked at various quality-of-life programs, said Charles Milam, principal director of military community and family policy. The main question, he said, was: “How can we deliver those programs most effectively and efficiently?”
“Through that, I think we’re going to see some savings,” Milam said.
“I don’t know what they are at this point. Now is not the time to go in there with an ax, especially with reintegration and transition [from a wartime footing]. As we start pulling our troops back, we have to keep an eye on those particular programs,” he said. DoD programs, such as Military OneSource, military family life counselors and the Yellow Ribbon program, may change in size based on lessons learned, but Wright said, “I don’t see them necessarily going away.”
Milam said he hasn’t heard from the services that they are looking to completely cut any particular program.
“I think what they’re trying to do is shape them or combine them,” he said. “Commanders understand the need. They understand how important quality of life is to service members and their families and the stress that they’re under right now.
“No one’s going in and saying we’re cutting child care, we’re cutting fitness programs…. At least we haven’t heard any of that, and that would certainly be an area of concern,” he said.
Milam and Wright said DoD will also focus on how services are provided.
“We have a service delivery model on installations that was built during the Cold War, where most of our servicemembers and families lived on the installation,” Milam said, noting that most troops today live off the installations.
Some infrastructure is required for those families that do live and work on installations, but the military needs to partner with community organizations to help support the families that do not, Milam said.
For example, he said, DoD and the services have had a longstanding partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
“Does every installation need a youth center? Perhaps, perhaps not. If they don’t have enough children playing youth sports, the children could play with the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA,” he said.
Higher Prices At The Commissary?
Defense officials will take a “candid look” at whether commissaries should operate without taxpayer subsidies, said Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Eliminating the $1.4 billion annual taxpayer subsidy for commissaries was one potential cost-cutting measure outlined in the Pentagon’s new strategic review, released July 31. That would mean marking up the price of groceries, similar to the way military exchanges mark up their products to pay for operating costs.
The taxpayer subsidy now pays for those costs, such as cashiers’ salaries. That allows commissaries to sell items at cost — and provide a steep discount, generally about 30 percent, compared with average off-base grocery prices. The military community consistently ranks commissaries as a top valued benefit.
“The budget for the Defense Department in total has clearly decreased,” Wright said in a Tuesday interview. “So … we need to put everything on the table. Commissaries were one of [those] things. It came out in the review that we should look at commissaries the same way we do [the exchanges].
“We’re really going to take a candid look at it.”
Whether elimination of the taxpayer subsidy happens will depend on whether DoD can garner the expected savings, she said.
“It needs to produce the results we think it’s going to produce,” she said. “The service is going to still be provided. It may be a little bit of a different way that we provide the service, but the end state will remain.”