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Reviews threaten commissary benefit

DeCA may see 33 percent budget cut

May. 6, 2013 - 06:50AM   |  
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RICHMOND, VA. — Commissary officials are conducting at least three short-fuse cost-cutting reviews, each of which could significantly reduce access to the benefit by either shutting down some stores or shortening their hours.

■A directive from the Pentagon comptroller requires the Defense Commissary Agency and others to look at cutting its $1.4 billion annual budget by up to 33 percent, while focusing operations on supporting troops stationed overseas. That would cut deeply into operating funds from stateside stores.

This directive also requires commissary officials to come up with a separate, short-term plan to save 5 percent of overall costs, and was due in early May.

■DeCA, like all Defense Department agencies, must review its headquarters staffing under an initiative dubbed the Strategic Choice and Management Review.

■Commissaries will be studied by the Compensation Commission, mandated by Congress to review the value of all military pay and benefits programs. Although the commission has not yet been appointed, defense officials have been preparing data in advance.

Most worrying to military advocates is the requirement to develop a plan to cut up to 33 percent of the commissary budget. This review is due in early July, according to DeCA Director Joseph Jeu, who spoke at a conference here April 24.

Jeu said he considers this an “opportunity” for DeCA to be involved in shaping any changes in how the commissaries will operate. He noted that cuts made since the agency was created in 1992 have whittled the budget by $700 million a year.

“I don’t think there are too many agencies that can say they reduced their budget costs by 50 percent,” when inflation is taken into account, Jeu said. Without these cuts, the DeCA budget would have been on a trajectory to be more than $2 billion. The cuts have been achieved in part by reducing DeCA staff by 2,500 people over the years.

Salaries make up about 70 percent of the commissary’s operating budget; the next biggest line item is the cost of transporting groceries overseas, required by law to be paid by taxpayers. As such, shaving another 33 percent from DeCA’s operating budget would translate into closing stores and cutting hours, said Pat Nixon, a former Marine who is also a former DeCA director.

“That fundamentally changes the availability of the benefit,” said Nixon, now president of the American Logistics Association, a trade group whose members sell products and services to commissaries and exchanges.

Overseas troops and families are significantly more likely to use commissaries. About 13 percent of the active-duty force is stationed overseas, not counting Hawaii and Alaska, but they accounted for 24 percent of overall customer sales from October through February.

That means they’re about twice as likely to use the stores than those in the U.S., even before accounting for retirees, who overwhelmingly use stateside stores.

Nixon said the working group will come up with multiple scenarios to save the 33 percent, and is considering one in which some stores would close in metropolitan areas with multiple commissaries.

That could still have an impact on patrons. In the Hampton Roads, Va., area, for example, a family in Chesapeake, Va., has a 3-mile drive to the commissary at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; about 12 miles to stores at Norfolk Naval Station and Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek; 16 miles to Oceana Naval Air Station; and 21 miles to Langley Air Force Base.

In looking at ways to trim DeCA costs, officials should consider the impact of DoD’s current review of overseas bases, said Rene Campos of the Military Officers Association of America. She noted that DeCA could see future savings if DoD reduces its overseas footprint and some stores are not needed.

“There are so many things going on, we’re concerned something’s going to be missed or misinterpreted without input from beneficiaries,” Campos said. “If dollars are driving the decision, chances are the beneficiaries are not going to be on the best side of that bottom line.”

Deeper changes — such as anything affecting the current 5 percent surcharge on goods, or taxpayer funding of employees’ salaries or overseas transportation costs — would require changes in law, Nixon said.■

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