NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America’s troops where they live. We’re calling the project “Back at Base.”
At a time when the Department of Defense budget is under pressure, some military bases are re-examining how they operate to find ways to save.
And increasingly, base officials are looking west to a model established at the Presidio of Monterey, an installation on California’s Central Coast where the Army has a unique relationship with the city. Over time, millions of dollars have been saved.
The Presidio is home to the Defense Language Institute where the military teaches nearly two dozen languages including Pashto, Hebrew and Korean. This Army installation is so close to Monterey that houses and streets of the outside community dead end at the Presidio’s gate.
“If you think about it, the Presidio sits inside the City of Monterey boundaries,” says George Helms, the city’s general services superintendent.
His department is based right on the installation, where it handles everything from building remodels to street and sewer maintenance for both the city and the Army.
Helms says the main goal of this partnership — known as the Monterey Model — is to keep the base in the community by keeping costs down for the Army.
“Most of the good ideas come from the line of staff who see things happening every day, and then come back to me and say, ‘let’s try this…I think we can make it more efficient’,” he says.
For example, it used to be when things went wrong with card key locks used on the installation, the Army had to replace them at a cost of $700 apiece. But Helms’ staff figured out a way to fix them for just $70.
“The day that you become complacent is the day it becomes too expensive to operate this installation and then we become very susceptible to a [Base Realignment and Closure] action,” Helms says.
And that gets to the heart of what initially motivated this unique partnership between the city and the Army. Twenty years ago, the nearby Fort Ord Army Base closed. It was one of the largest bases ever shut down under BRAC. It resulted in a $500 million dollar loss to the region.
City officials worried other area military installations like the Presidio would be future targets of the unpredictable BRAC process.
“It’s so complex. I think no one can tell you what the rationale is,” says Hans Ulsar, who was part of the team that worked on the city’s first contract to provide lower cost services to the Army in 1998.
Ulsar is now Monterey’s assistant city manager and says while the city can’t exactly BRAC proof itself, there are some things it can control.
“One of those elements is cost of operating a base, so we hope we contribute to that by having a lower cost for our military base,” he says.
As a contractor, the city saves the federal government money by not adding on a profit to the services it provides. The city and the Army also share equipment. That means lower prices on everything from resurfacing streets to purchasing lamp posts. It all adds up to a savings of roughly $2 million a year for the Army.
“There’s an evolution happening in the military of how we look at installations,” says Tim Ford, CEO of the Association of Defense Communities, a D.C. based nonprofit. “I think we’re starting to move away from this idea that a base has to be a city unto itself. That it has to provide all of these services separate from the community.”
Ford says partnerships being developed elsewhere include the sharing of everything from garbage collection to plowing snow. Helms says it just makes sense.
“Why would you stop at the gate?” Helms says. “Why would you have a fence line separate your maintenance?”
Since this started nearly 15 years ago, the Monterey Model has inspired partnerships elsewhere in the Army, and now the Air Force is exploring the idea, too.