Stars and Stripes - by John Vandiver
With Defense Department spending under more scrutiny than ever, a $1.4 million Army funding request for renovations at a German mansion intended to house the senior U.S. officer in Stuttgart raised a few eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
So did many other parts of the Army’s 2012 budget request for general officer housing, which included 71 cases in which the service sought funds that far exceeded the amount allowed for housing maintenance and operating costs. More than half of the $10 million the Army aimed to spend on those 71 homes was pegged to maintain 18 on-base homes of general and flag officers in Stuttgart, according to the Army’s budget request.
Renovations make up the bulk of these costs: new bathrooms, kitchens, plumbing, floors and windows, and, in the case of the off-base mansion, security.
Now lawmakers want to curtail how the military allocates taxpayer dollars for general officer housing, which they say has gotten out of control.
The Senate Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs has issued a Dec. 31 deadline for conducting a cost-benefit analysis.
“I think the Army had less control over its budget, and over time there’s been a breakdown in budget common sense,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who co-chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. “I think you’ve got to look at what’s gone wrong within the Army staff.”
Of the 81 instances across the military in which the $35,000 statutory limit for annual maintenance costs was exceeded, 71 involved properties managed by the Army. The Navy went over the limit nine times and the Air Force once, the committee reported.
The Army’s expenditures in Stuttgart, home to U.S. European and Africa commands, also are getting extra scrutiny. Kirk has asked the secretary of the Army to review all costs associated with the housing of general and flag officers in Stuttgart. While the Army will spend about $5 million this fiscal year to maintain and operate the general officer homes in Stuttgart, that does not include $1.4 million that the Army initially requested for the Clay House, a historic German-owned property off-base that has traditionally housed the senior ranking officer in Stuttgart.
“The Army backed down on that,” said Kirk, whose committee passed a $142 billion military construction bill in July that did not include funds to renovate the grounds at the Clay House.
Since 2000, U.S. taxpayers have spent on average $47,000 per year to operate the 15,000-square-foot mansion, according to Installation Management Command-Europe. That average excludes 2007, when the Army spent $1 million to renovate the interior of the mansion, IMCOM-E reported. An agreement with the host nation stipulates that while the military does not pay rent on the property, it is responsible for upkeep, the Army said. Over the years, the rent-free mansion has turned into a money pit, officials acknowledge. It remains unclear how the Army will free itself from the mounting costs to operate the nearly 100-year-old home.
“We’re taking concrete steps to mitigate costs,” said Ken White, spokesman for IMCOM-E. “We’ve been having discussions with the host nation since spring, and expect to conclude those discussions soon.”
Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. AFRICOM, has yet to take up residence at the home, which was vacated earlier this year by his predecessor, retired Gen. William E. Ward. During a change of occupancy, the home is typically vacant while routine upgrades are made. Six months into his command, Ham still has not moved in.
While acknowledging there are no immediate plans for Ham to make such a move, White stopped short of saying Ham’s current home on Kelley Barracks would be his permanent address.
“I would not disagree with divestiture [of the property] as the end state,” White added when asked about the future of the Clay House.
In the meantime, because the Stuttgart mansion has historic value, the U.S. is obligated to maintain it to a certain standard.
Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union, a grassroots watchdog group, said that while spending on housing for generals is but a tiny part of the Pentagon budget, plans for more congressional oversight are welcomed.
“It means that specific program excesses will fall under Congress’ ongoing scrutiny,” he said.
Taxpayers are doling out too much money for the living quarters owned by the German government, Kirk said.
Still, housing costs remain high even on base. It will cost the Army about $5 million to renovate 18 homes on Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, White said. Those upgrades are for long overdue improvements such as new plumbing and heating systems, according to the Army.
“Those were constructed in 1957,” White said. “There have been no major renovations since then.”
Other expenditures questioned by the Senate subcommittee on military construction include $15,421 the Army pays monthly to house the military’s three-star NATO representative in Brussels and $66,000 it pays annually to lease a house for a general in Miami, home to U.S. Southern Command.
Army officials say a plan is being developed to control such spending, particularly in Belgium, where the cost of living is among the highest in Europe. Instead of leasing, the Army wants to own homes, which would be more cost effective, according to an IMCOM spokesman based in the U.S.
Lawmakers are also taking issue with spending that hasn’t even made it into budget requests.
That was the case in a June 30 Senate report on the military construction budget. The Army was criticized for a plan to spend $300,000 to “adequately size the official entertainment space within the home” in Miami.
“At a time when agencies throughout the Federal Government are making sacrifices to save valuable tax dollars, the Committee is concerned that the Department of Defense is not scrutinizing its [general and flag officer] leasing program as carefully as it should,” the report stated.
While big spending on living quarters for generals might rub taxpayers the wrong way, the general public still struggles to scrutinize big-ticket defense budget items, according to Sepp.
“Ask everyday taxpayers if $10 billion is too much or too little to pay for an aircraft carrier, and you’ll likely get a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’” Sepp said. “Ask them if $300,000 is too much or too little to provide entertainment space for a home the Army maintains in Florida, and you’ll likely get some much more definitive opinions.”
The Army’s hunt for efficiencies in how it houses its generals began well before lawmakers began raising concerns earlier this summer, White said.
“We’re looking for alternatives to cut costs everywhere,” he said. “We were already doing due diligence, but we can always do better.”