Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Limestone argues for expansion of DFAS

By TOM BELL, Portland Press Herald Writer

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LIMESTONE The Pentagon should enlarge its accounting office in Limestone rather than shut it down, Aroostook County officials argue. They'll defend that position today as Lloyd Newton, a retired Air Force general, tours the Defense Finance and Accounting Service center in Limestone.

Housed in a former military hospital on what used to be Loring Air Force Base, the center employs 353 people. Newton sits on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is reviewing the Pentagon's plan to close the center.

Hundreds of workers and residents are expected to greet Newton when he arrives this morning. A local radio station ran a public service announcement all day Monday, urging residents to attend the rally and fight to protect the region's quality of life.

"Our DFAS (pronounced DEE-fass) center does not need to be closed or realigned," the announcer says in the radio spot, "unless it is to be bigger and better."

The "make it bigger" argument is more than just chutzpah. It's smart politics.

The Pentagon runs the world's largest finance and accounting service, with 15,000 employees dispersed in 26 locations around the country as well as overseas. To save money, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to consolidate those services into three huge centers, in Columbus, Ohio, Denver, Colo., and Indianapolis.

Aroostook County officials can't argue for the status quo, said Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority. He said they must show the Pentagon how the Limestone center can help the military consolidate and fit into Rumsfeld's "new world order."

Flora said the building housing the accounting center was built in 1988 for $22 million and renovated four years ago for $6 million. He said it has room for hundreds of additional workers.

But most important, he said, is that Aroostook County can deliver a high-quality work force.

When it came up with its base-closure list, the Pentagon gave the Limestone center low marks as a potential site for consolidation because it's not in a metropolitan area. Pentagon officials believe an urban location would give a facility access to a much bigger pool of workers.

But Flora noted that at the Limestone center, the average salary is about $33,000, which is $12,000 above the Aroostook County average. In expensive urban areas where there are better opportunities in the private sector, the Pentagon jobs aren't that attractive, he said. But in Aroostook they are considered premium jobs and attract high-quality workers.

Although the unemployment rate here is about the same as the state average, he said, the work force is underemployed. Many people work several jobs or 60 or more hours at one job to make ends meet, according to an authority study.

That's why it takes only 9.2 days on average for the DFAS center in Limestone to fill a job vacancy, the fastest time in the entire defense accounting system. The center in Alexandria, Va., takes 44 days to fill a job, and the center in Kansas City takes 133 days.

The cost of housing in Aroostook County is also much cheaper, Flora said. The average house here costs $60,200, about half the national average.

If the Limestone center would expand, he said, it also could tap into a "shadow work force," the people who have left the county and who would love to come home if they only had a good job.

If the DFAS center should close, most workers will not transfer out-of-state because the cost of living in the cities is too high, said Mark Durinski, president of Local 294 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at the Limestone facility.

Durinski said the low housing prices in Aroostook County mean workers don't have much equity in their homes to help them buy houses in urban areas.

On Monday night at the VFW hall in Caribou, Durinski and other workers were busy making signs, such as: "We're the best of the best" and "Grow DFAS."

The accounting center was established in May 1995, less than a year after Loring Air Force Base closed.

Loring's closure was devastating. The region lost 4,500 military jobs and 1,100 civilian jobs. Within two years, six car dealers went out of business.

Flora said the DFAS center has been a cornerstone of the effort to redevelop the former base. It accounts for nearly a third of the jobs that have been created since the base closed.

Peter Weatherhead, who five years ago bought a nine-hole golf course and a 158-unit apartment complex in Limestone, said closing the center would hurt many businesses in the region.

He said people in the area fought so hard to recover after the shutdown of Loring that it's hard to believe they are faced with another closure. Weatherhead said he was fixing up an apartment when he heard on the radio that the accounting center made the Pentagon's closure list.

"I thought, 'You got to be kidding me. They're doing this twice to us in the last 10 years,' " he said.

Weatherhead said local residents were not prepared for the news because they didn't consider the accounting center a military base. He's preparing for the worst, he said, because he believes the Pentagon won't buy the argument that it should be expanded into a major center.

"It won't be feasible for the government to put one of those centers in northern Maine," he said. "I hope (Maine officials) can pull some strings somewhere, but once you get on the list, it's hard to get off."

Ernest Murphy, who owns the Flightline Cafe in Limestone, remains optimistic about the region's ability to bounce back.

His cafe is located near the Maine Military Authority, which has a $23 million contract to prepare Army Humvees to replace vehicles overseas. He said the facility will be expanding, and many of the new workers will be eating lunch at his cafe.

"I'm at the right place at the right time," he said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com