BRAC could spark small retiree migration

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Sometime between now and May 16, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will release a list of military bases the department wants closed, labeling them unneeded infrastructure that waste billions of dollars annually.

Community leaders in affected areas will express shock and anger.

Paid lobbyists will begin pumping out reasons why a new nine-member Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission should spare particular bases from the final list to be sent the White House by Sept. 8.

And tens of thousands of military retirees who rely on these bases for medical care, cost-free drugs, discount shopping and more will wonder whether to pull up roots and move near a base not on the BRAC list.

The size of retiree migrations from past BRAC rounds is a mystery. Defense officials who oversee installations say they have no such data. Neither does the Government Accountability Office, which carefully has studied the impact of previous BRAC rounds

But there’s general agreement among BRAC experts that the next round of closings should trigger smaller retiree migrations than past rounds.

They point to two healthcare options enacted since BRAC 1995 that should ease the expense for retirees of living without a base. They are TRICARE for Life, the robust insurance supplement to Medicare for service elderly, and the increasingly popular TRICARE mail order pharmacy plan.

They also cite a boom in commercial discount stores, such as Wal-Mart and Price Club, which now compete for customers with military base stores.

Several Arizona cities commissioned a study in 2002 to measure the effect of nearby bases on their economies. The study contractor, Maguire Company of Phoenix, found it reasonable in conducting its analysis to assume that 25 percent of military retirees living within 50 miles of a base were so “linked” to its amenities that they would leave the area if the base closed.

The 25 percent was no more than a guess, the study suggested.

Yet a professor at Rutgers University, Michael J. Lahr, used the figure last year in a study for the governor of New Jersey to estimate the impact of base closures in that state. Lahr conceded in his report that he was unable to find any information on the “probable proportion of military retirees” who would relocate “if all military bases in New Jersey were shuttered.”

Lahr wrote that he was using the 25 percent estimate used in Arizona for his own economic models because there “is no reason to believe that New Jersey-base military retirees would behave any differently.”

Sociology professor Mark Fagan at Jackson State University in Jackson, Ala., actually surveyed retirees living in Calhoun County, home of Fort McClellan, in 1995 after the Pentagon released its last BRAC list. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they would leave the county if McClellan closed.

But when the base finally did close, in 1999, there was no follow-up census to learn how many of the surveyed retirees actually did move. Whatever the percentage was, Fagan suggested in a recent phone interview, fewer retirees likely would migrate today from a new BRAC area.

“With Wal-Mart super-centers and with Internet shopping,” he said the financial impact for retirees of losing base access “has gone down.”

That doesn’t mean, he added, retirees won’t miss their bases.

“These military people are socialized to live together,” Fagan said. “They are conditioned to the pomp and ceremony and status” of being part of a military community that recognizes their careers and rank. “The nostalgia is very strong to be around a base, around that military culture.”

Fagan said he recently proposed to local community leaders that they encourage developers to turn portions of McClellan, including base housing, the golf course, ponds and walking trails, into a retirement community where retirees who never left could share in that nostalgia again.

The lack of hard facts about retiree migration from BRAC rounds shouldn’t obscure some harsh realities. One reason retirees might not flee is housing prices often plummet in the months following release of a BRAC list.

TRICARE for Life will cushion the blow for older retirees, many experts agree. But most retirees and many others living in BRAC areas still will lose a lot.

New BRAC Commission Chairman Anthony Principi didn’t shy away from such perceptions at a May 3 inaugural hearing on Capitol Hill.

“The ripples of the proposals” to be announced this month, Principi said, “will be tsunamis in the communities they hit.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: