Gretchen Turpen’s commentary recently published by Army Times (“What the GAO lodging report got right – and where it missed the mark,” June 29) not only misses the mark itself — it asks the entirely wrong question.

The question isn’t whether we should privatize Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps lodging, too. The question is why we should bring Army lodging back to an in-house government operation?

Turpen acknowledges she is writing in her capacity as senior vice president and head of lodging at Leadlease, “the Army’s exclusive Privatized Army Lodging (PAL) partner.” The first thing to note about this acknowledgement is its “exclusive” nature – what ought to be an immediate red flag.

It’s the nature of privatization that once you have done it, it’s difficult to turn back. This inherently creates a monopoly and conditions that are ripe for abuse, which is what the Government Accountability Office uncovered. Simply put, the privatized lodges overpromised and underdelivered and the taxpayer footed the bill through the back door in higher per diem rates. Further, facility modernization lagged. The result was the contractor pocketed the difference.

The other central claim that Turpen’s commentary does not adequately address is the failure of the Army to perform a proper “apples to apples” cost comparison in its original decision to privatize. As early as 2010, GAO claimed the Army consciously decided to make “limited investments in its lodging facilities since it decided to privatize the facilities.” This decision shifted “life-safety and critical system repairs,” such as the replacement of air conditioning systems, to the private developer and contributed to significant delays.

Indeed, the thrust of the rationale used by Turpen for expanding privatization to the other military departments is presumed “cost avoidance” — that there supposedly was more than $600 million in cost avoidance savings from using the Army’s privatized lodging facilities when compared to full per diem rates.

However, GAO properly points out that many of the local off-post private lodging facilities do not charge the full per diem rate, and there is apparently an insufficient accounting of when travelers are authorized to use those facilities in lieu of the Army’s privatized on-post lodging.

Even more outrageous is Turpen throwing exchanges and MWR programs under the bus to protect her company by characterizing CARES funding for these programs as a “bailout.” The CARES funding provided to exchanges and MWR programs is just a fraction of the billions of dollars that military service members, through the exchanges, contributed to their own quality of life programs over the years.

Congress and the Pentagon were right to provide this funding, because feeding this golden goose instead of allowing the pandemic to starve it will yield tremendous dividends to our military and American taxpayers in the years to come —unlike the Army lodging privatization, which is a perpetual sinkhole for taxpayer payments.

Unfortunately, GAO has not interpreted current statutory requirements in section 2461 of Title 10 as requiring a rigorous “apples to apples” cost comparison to the non-appropriated fund workforce. In addition, efforts to address shortcomings of the process for making cost comparisons for the appropriated fund workforce are stymied by the lack of progress by the department in developing fully transparent accountings of contract services labor and costs in contractor inventories and budget submissions, which are still on GAO’s high risk list.

Accordingly, our union strongly supports retaining a moratorium on any further privatization of functions currently performed by federal government employees and believes this moratorium rightfully should be applied to the non-appropriated fund workforce. Additionally, the Army ought to undertake a review of its privatized lodging facilities for insourcing the Army lodging program pursuant to section 2463 of Title 10 and begin to take full responsibility for improving and upgrading the facilities.

Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees, including about 300,000 in the Department of Defense (DoD). AFGE represents non-appropriated fund workers in non-privatized lodging facilities, as well as federal employees who are required by their jobs to engage in official travel or who use military lodging facilities in conjunction with permanent change in station moves.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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