Tuesday, November 11, 2008

TOP STORY > >Pryor, Schatz get praise for housing start

Leader senior staff writer

Sen. Mark Pryor pledged his continuing support of veterans and men and women in the U.S. military when he was guest speaker at the Veterans Day retreat ceremony Monday at Little Rock Air Force Base.

The ceremony, conducted at Heritage Park, was attended by a couple hundred airmen in formation and perhaps an equal number off-duty, some out of uniform.

In an interview, Pryor said the Air Force in general had botched its oversight on housing privatization at four bases, including Little Rock. He cited Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, the base commander, for his advocacy for getting housing privatization back on track and said there was a new spirit of bipartisanship in the nation’s capital.

Pryor has sponsored legislation requiring closer oversight of companies with military housing privatization contracts.

“I’m not a big fan of privatization generally, but I think it does make good sense for military housing,” Pryor said. “There’s been a good track record there.Unfortunately the Air Force botched this particular project. I want to make sure in future that this doesn’t happen again. We’ll get about 1,000 (housing) units here that are brand new or substantially upgraded. This will help with BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) and help with quality of life here on the base.”

Schatz, who thanked Pryor for his efforts, said the new owners and builders of privatized base housing, Hunt-Pinnacle, or HP Communities, had a good record elsewhere. “We’re excited to get rolling again.”

The previous owner, American Eagle Communities and its prin cipals—the Carabetta Group and Shaw Infrastructure — stopped work on the project at Little Rock Air Force Base and on similar contracts at three other Air Force bases in May 2007.

Speaking of Pryor’s help in resolving the problems with stalled housing privatization, the general said, “We’ve been having some big challenges over the past year and a half with our public housing here, and I want to thank publicly Sen. Pryor, who puts his care for the men and women not only in the public scene, but also in working behind the scene very hard to help us get a new owner here and to help with some of our problems because he cares about the quality of life for our airmen and their families. Thank you for your service to our great nation.”

Pryor said he thought Carabetta should be excluded from bidding on future contracts.

“Gen. Schatz deserves credit,” Pryor said. “He stayed doggedly on contractors and on the Air Force.”

Pryor praised the Jacksonville community and Mayor Tommy Swaim for their support of the planned $14.8 million joint- education center to be built well outside the main gate for the convenience of civilian personnel in uncertain times when it can be difficult to get on the base.

Jacksonville recently presented a $5 million check to Gen. Schatz for its share of the cost.

“Gen. (Wayne) Schatz told me on the way over here he was already getting calls from other bases wondering ‘hey, how do we do this?’” Pryor said.

“And he said the first thing you do is get a good community,” the senator said.

“It’s extremely important to me as a U.S. senator that we honor the commitments we’ve made to our veterans. We need to honor their service and live up to the principles that they’ve fought to preserve,” Pryor said.

“I sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee and I’m able to focus my attention on training, equipment, benefits and various care opportunities we have for our men and women in uniform and our veterans.”

Pryor said there had been big upgrades in veterans’ benefits, including brain injuries and post-traumatic stress syndrome research and assistance.

“We’ve seen more emphasis on education and continuing education and retirement benefits that have been promised over the years that the Congress and the president have been slow to act on. I’m proud to do that,” the senator said.

Pryor, who was reelected to a second term Nov. 4, said he really looks forward to the next six years and the next presidency.

“I’m really very optimistic about the future of this country. I know we have a lot of challenges. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t.

“One of the great things about this country is we settle our differences at the ballot box. And once that’s over, they shake hands.”

Pryor said he believed that the current banking and financial crisis has a silver lining.

“For the first time, I saw senators and congressmen, saw the White House, saw the leaders in both parties really drop the partisanship completely…and come together and focus on this economic crisis,” Pryor said.

“I’m hopeful that in the next couple of years we can set a new benchmark, a new pattern to work together and get things done. I think we’ll see a renewed focus on taking care of our domestic needs in this country. I really sense this renewed spirit of cooperation in Washington. I think it’s going to be very, very good for the country.”

“Thank you for coming out today and honoring the service of our veterans past and present,” Schatz said to Pryor. “I also want to say thank you for your great support (of U.S. forces) around the world.”