Commissary boss: Value overlooked

Military grocery stores operate so efficiently that the discounts provided to shoppers are worth double the value of tax dollars being spent to deliver this prized benefit worldwide to U.S. service members and families.

Joseph H. Jeu, director of the Defense Commissary Agency, made that point and more in an interview last week amid rising speculation that commissaries could be targeted for cuts under national debt reduction plans being readied by Congress and the Obama administration.

In return for the “$1.3 billion that we get in appropriations support” annually, Jeu said, “we are providing nearly $2.7 billion in savings to patrons.” That more than “two-for-one return on investment” is “something people don’t think about. It’s really an excellent investment for taxpayers.”

As national debt climbs toward $15 trillion, and politicians confront a crisis decades in the making, talk in Washington is of cutting federal entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, and slashing future defense budgets. Commissaries have become part of that conversation, thanks to a long-standing suggestion by the Congressional Budget Office.

CBO says that up to $1.7 billion a year could be saved by ending commissary subsidies, combining base grocery and department stores into a single system and cutting shopper discounts to 5 percent. The diluted discounts could be eased in part with a new grocery allowance, CBO advises.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee liked the CBO idea enough to include it in a bill to create another entitlement. The committee voted to take dollars saved by ending the commissary subsidy and redirect them to the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to veterans and their families who lived on Camp Lejeune, N.C., during an era time when base drinking water was contaminated.

Defense officials meanwhile are studying ways to achieve $400 billion in budget savings over 10 years as ordered by President Obama earlier this year. And under a separate deal reached this summer, this one as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, a new “super committee” of lawmakers must find at least $1.5 trillion more in debt-cutting initiatives over the decade or automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion, by design, will hitdefense budgets and entitlements hard.

Rather than comment on any particular threat to stores or savings, real or perceived, Jeu chooses to explain the value commissaries create for shoppers and taxpayers.

First, he said, DeCA has a tradition of efficiency that other agencies would do well to emulate. When adjusted for inflation, the $1.3 billion annual appropriation is 40 percent below what DeCA got in 1992, when it was formed through consolidation of service-run grocery store. That’s savings of about $700 million a year to deliver the benefit, Jeu said.

Commissaries shoppers meanwhile save, on average, 31.7 percent over commercial store patrons. The savings likely are less, he conceded, if price comparisons are made only for Wal-Mart or other major discounters.

But commissaries deliver more than savings. They bring a sense of community, Jeu said. That was seen following recent natural disasters including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March. Shelves in grocery stores outside Misawa Air Base soon were bare of goods. But commissary shelves were full, Jeu said, with “plenty of bottled water, batteries and all those things. The (deputy wing) commander there sent me an email. He said the commissary had been a ‘bedrock’ of the community. That’s how members view their commissary.”