BILOXI – Harrison County could lose the equivalent of a major industry if a current study of 700-755 military and civilian jobs at Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) results in recommendations that the work be contracted out to private companies.
Keesler is scheduled to undergo a competitive sourcing study that is part of the Air Force’s continuing effort to improve cost effectiveness and efficiency. The study will pit the government’s Air Force civilian proposals against contractor bids on a cost comparison basis. The winner of the competition is scheduled to assume responsibility for those operations sometime during the year 2002.
Once the study has been completed and its recommendations implemented, either government civilians or civilian contract workers will do work formerly done by a mix of military and civilian members.
Civilian jobs at Keesler used to be considered secure and were generally well paid. But the trend towards outsourcing in recent years leaves people with seniority wondering if they will be replaced by private company employees who have less experience, lower salaries and little job security since the contracts have a limited lifespan.
The cloud of uncertainty regarding future employment at Keesler has caused stress.
“It’s facing an uncertain future this is most painful for our people,” said Brig. Gen Ann Harrell, 81st Training Wing commander. “We will do our utmost to keep everyone fully informed and ensure the study is conducted fairly and equitably.”
The 81st Training Wing is the electronics, computer and weather training center of the U.S. Air Force. Keesler is one of the largest training centers in the Air Force.
In recent years Keesler has contracted out numerous functions such as grounds maintenance, telephone operators, custodial services and airfield operations. In April of this year the precision measurement equipment laboratory and maintenance functions were transferred to contractor services.
ITT Federal Services Corporation, a Colorado firm, was selected as the winner of a four-year, $14.9-million contract to take over training equipment maintenance and precision measurement functions at Keesler. About 250 military and civilian employees lost their jobs when the contract was given to ITT Federal Services. The number of people doing the work was reduced. With electronic principles training, 59 private company employees were replaced by 72 military and civilian employees.
The Air Force tentatively decided to keep electronic principles training in-house at Keesler and Lackland AFB, Texas. The decisions to award a contract to ITT Federal Services and keep electronic principles training in-house came after a two-year competitive sourcing and privatization study.
The Air Force has said the competitive sourcing allows it to sustain readiness, generate savings for force modernization and focus their personnel and resources on core Air Force Missions.
Keesler is one of five Air Education and Training Command bases identified to undergo cost comparison studies within the next five years. Maxwell AFB, Ala., began cost comparison in April 1998. Lackland AFB, Texas, began its study in January 1999. Sheppard AFB, Texas, begins its study immediately and Randolph AFB, Texas, begins its study within the next two years.
Keesler AFB has long been a mainstay of the Biloxi economy, generating an economic impact estimated at $1.4 billion annually. The military and civilian payroll in 1998 was more than $500 million. In addition to the active-duty military at Keesler, there are more than 10,000 retired military people, representing all branches of the armed services, living within 40 miles of the base. Their retirement income for fiscal year 1998 totaled more than $156 million.
The outsourcing proposal for Keesler comes at the same time that some fear a new round of military base closures that could impact Mississippi.
Former Columbus Air Force Base commander Nick Ardillo recently told members of the Mississippi Legislative Budget Committee that he is convinced that “they will come after us.”
Ardillo, speaking on behalf of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD), requested $250,000 in funds to fight a possible new round of military base closures.
State military facilities including Keesler, Columbus and the Meridian Naval Air Station survived base-closure rounds in 1991, 1993 and 1995. Ardillo said the Pentagon is again eager to close bases in order to have money to build new airplanes, submarines and other hardware.
Ardillo, who is currently executive director of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, said the Department of Defense is so real-estate rich that they’ve got to pare down. He said while the state has been fortunate with the earlier rounds of base closures, Mississippi’s turn could be next. Mississippi actually gained about 850 military personnel due to base closings elsewhere.
Mississippi has about 30,000 soldiers, airmen and sailors stationed in the state. Their payroll at eight military installations totals $1 billion.
MDECD director Jimmy Heidel said that the $250,000 requested for next year’s budget would help the state keep abreast of Pentagon plans and lobby federal officials and congressmen. A Washington lobbying firm keeps track of base-closure issues for the state.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.