Tuesday, August 09, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Base impact is still strong

Little Rock Air Force Base’s economic impact was down $300 million last year, according to a just-released military report.

The report showed 2015 economic impact at $631 million, $121 million indirectly. In 2014, it was $959 million, $146 million indirectly.

Last year, the base directly spent $510 million on payroll and expenditures in central Arkansas, according to numbers provided by the 19th Comptroller Squadron. An additional $121 million was credited to the base indirectly. Economists call the effect a multiplier: Every dollar spent in the community keeps recirculating to everyone’s benefit. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman reminds us, one person’s spending is another’s income.

The air base is the fourth largest employer in the state.

Why the drop in the base’s economic impact? Last year, we saw the effect of the so-called sequester trickling down to every base community: People were temporarily laid off and many activities were suspended. As a belt-tightening measure, the Air Force has eliminated most air shows, including the one in Jacksonville, although there will be a military expo Sept. 17 at the air base with displays of airplanes and military hardware.

Well, 2014 was a bit unusual as the budget included one big-ticket item: The new runway, valued at about $108 million, was budgeted in 2014 but construction continues till next year, benefiting local contractors and their suppliers. “Money will be spent in the local area throughout the construction,” Mayor Gary Fletcher told us last week.

With dozens of construction projects, close to 70 planes and more than 4,300 military members assigned to the base, the drop baffled the mayor. In 2014, 5,225 active military jobs were listed in the report. In 2015, it fell to 4,338. Part of the reason is smaller crews are needed as the base transitions to more automated C-130Js. A decade ago, the base’s 5,919 active duty personnel collected $274 million in pay.

According to the 2015 report, the base has a total annual payroll of $287 million and spent $174 million on health, construction and supplies. Add in $49.9 million in salaries and expenditures for the Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing, and the direct impact is $510 million.

The comptrollers estimated that in 2015 the base was also indirectly responsible for 2,835 jobs with a total payroll of $121 million. Add that in and the base was responsible for infusing $631 million into the local communities in 2015.

That figure is still higher than it was a decade ago, when it stood at $600 million. But the drop in military personnel inevitably will reduce the economic impact on our communities.

Here’s hoping the next administration will continue to invest in our magnificent air base. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration directed $100 million worth of improvement projects to our air base — new headquarter buildings, air-traffic-control tower, fitness center, new fiber-optic cables and so much more, including the new generation of C-130Js worth billions of dollars.

The C-130Js have changed the way our military delivers cargo and personnel. They’re faster and leaner and more dependable in hot spots, requiring smaller runaways and allowing for quick landings and departures.

Only a handful of C-130s were being made in the 1990s, and their future was in doubt. There were those who wanted to kill the program. Then, in 1996, the Clinton administration announced at the old officers club that production would proceed after all.

We were present at their creation and watched them grow on our flightline. The 19th Airlift Wing now has a full complement of 28 C-130Js, and the 314th Airlift Wing has received 13 with two more on the way. Those new planes are worth $3.4 billion. Talk about a lasting economic impact.

We would be remiss if we did not mention former Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), who not only helped shepherd through the C-130Js a generation ago, but also arranged to fund an air-traffic-control tower and the new runway now under construction.

President Clinton did not forget his home state when he was in the White House. The next administration should only do so well. Another $100 million investment in Little Rock Air Force Base will go a long way — from Jacksonville, Cabot, Sherwood, Ward, Austin, Beebe and Lonoke and halfway around the world and back.