Leader Blues

Saturday, December 22, 2007

TOP STORY >>Communities pleased with $39 million for projects

Leader senior staff writer

Construction of the new $15.7 million Joint Education Center at Little Rock Air Force Base is surer than ever now that Congress has sent President Bush a $555 billion omnibus spending bill.

Bush had said that he would sign the bill if he got $70 billion in unfettered war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, but having gotten his war money, he now says he may find a way to slash funding for some of the $15.3 billion worth of earmarks in the omnibus and Defense Department spending bills.

Those figures are nonetheless about 25 percent less than the 2005 budget passed by the then-Republican-controlled Congress, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“Those projects are in the bill and the president doesn’t have a line-item veto,” said Michael Teague, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. He said all these so-called earmarks worth $39 million for the area had been debated and discussed openly in committees and approved, unlike the 2005 spending bill, in which the Republican-controlled Congress inserted items in secret at the last minute.

Unless the president vetoes the entire bill, the money for the air base, $840,000 for the Cabot Readiness Center—a new National Guard facility — as well as funding for projects at Camp Robinson and for several others in central Arkansas should become available soon.

Also in the spending bill is $9.8 million for runway repair, lighting and communications at the air base.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim. “I’ve been disappointed many times before. I’ll hold off on any brash statements.”

The Joint Education Center is a combined project of the base and the community. It would be built outside the gate and provide classes to both airmen and civilians.

Jacksonville residents voted in 2003 to tax themselves to pay their share, and the town’s $5 million is in the bank, Swaim said.

The existing education center is old, and attendance has been drastically down since base security was beefed up in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

The new facility, built outside the fenced perimeter of the base and near the intersection of Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Drive, won’t require civilians to come “inside the wire.”

“It will be like having a community college in town and that’s a plus,” Swaim said. “We have a lot of students that hopefully would take advantage, obtain a degree in some sort of higher education.”

“The working relationship (between the base and town leaders) has been excellent,” said Swaim. “The process has been long and arduous.”

But no one gave up, he said, particularly the congressional delegation. “Cong. Vic Snyder has been tenacious and we’ve had support from others in the delegation.

“The better educated our airmen are, the more likely they are to stay in the Air Force,” said Tech. Sgt. Katherine Garcia, spokesman for the 314th Airlift Wing. “That way, the initial investment is not lost when they leave in four to six years.”
She said the current facilities were built in the 1950s.

Of the cooperation between the base and the town on the project, Garcia said, “When the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission comes to town, one of the things they evaluate is how badly does the community want the base,” she said.

“We employ 6,100 airmen. We’re the fourth largest employer in the state. This is my sixth base and I can say this is the strongest community interaction (with a base) that I’ve seen,” Garcia said.

Of the runway repair and expansion money, Garcia said, BRAC was expanding the base’s training mission to include that previously done by the 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia and that a small additional C-130 aircraft would be added at the base.

Garcia said the money would allow runway construction and repair without interrupting the base’s training mission.
“I am encouraged that they are making progress,” said Nancy Sheflette, director of the ASU-Beebe branch at the base’s current Joint Education Center.

Because of inflation, the education center has been downsized from about 80,000 square feet to about 50,000 square feet.
“We’ll be able to help a lot more students than we do currently,” she said. “We’ll have daytime classes as well as our current offerings.”

In addition to the money for the joint education center and the runway construction and repair on the military side, the bill includes $1.9 million for an Urban Assault Course at Camp Robinson, $18.4 million for the GED Plus program complex at Camp Robinson’s Professional Educational Center.

As a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process, Arkansas is slated to receive funding to modernize the Aerospace Ground Equipment and Engine facility at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Among other items of local interest in the omnibus bill are $9.8 million for the Grand Prairie Construction Project, $2.7 million for a Bayou Meto water study and $3.1 million toward study and engineering of a new I-630—I-430 interchange.

The Clinton School of Public Service would receive $1 million toward operation and- instruction, along with funds to maintain an extensive slate of public speakers.