After years of neglect, military facility upkeep gets attention in 2020 budget

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After several years in which the Pentagon knowingly scrimped on facility upkeep while it scrounged for operation and maintenance dollars to put toward military readiness, the Defense Department’s 2020 budget is finally beginning to approach the funding levels its own models say are needed to keep its infrastructure in decent shape.

For 2020, the Pentagon told the military services to peg their facility sustainment, restoration and modernization (FSRM) accounts to at least 85 percent of what DoD’s facility sustainment model says is necessary (the department’s longstanding goal has been 90 percent). Each service met or exceeded that mandate, and put billions of new dollars into FSRM.

Funding levels reached a low ebb in 2015, when the allocations were as low as 70 percent of the model. This added to a growing maintenance backlog and lengthening the list of facilities that have fallen into poor or failing condition.

The Air Force has planned the largest year-over-year increase of any the military services: Its $4.1 billion FSRM proposal for 2020 would be a 46 percent boost over what it received for 2019. Along with the funding increase, the service is shifting its philosophy for how to allocate its facility investments.

Officials said they would prioritize maintenance projects based on mission needs and where the funds would deliver the biggest bang-for-the-buck, abandoning an earlier strategy of fixing its worst buildings first.

The previous method seems to have been a losing battle, since facilities were deteriorating faster than the Air Force could fix them at recent funding levels. The service now has a backlog of $33 billion in deferred maintenance, officials told Federal News Network.

And it is not alone. Navy budget officials also told reporters last week that the Navy has $14 billion in deferred maintenance and repairs on its bases; the Marine Corps has $9 billion.

But both services also plan sizable increases in their FSRM budgets for 2020. They’re budgeting to 87 and 88 percent of DoD’s facilities model, respectively,  up from only about 80 percent this year. The Navy’s FSRM budget would increase about 25 percent compared to 2019 and the Marines would get a 43 percent boost, partly to help deal with damage caused by Hurricanes Florence and Matthew last year.

“This is an area where we’ve taken some risk in recent years,” Rear Adm. Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said. “This investment is going to arrest the degradation of shore facilities, and it makes targeted investments in mission-critical infrastructure. And I think the increased funding is absolutely going to help with our material condition.”

The Army, meanwhile, would see about a 22 percent increase in FSRM funding, a level that would pay for about 85 percent of the spending suggested by DoD’s model.

The FSRM funds are separate from the Base Operating Support accounts that pay for day-to-day services, and from the Military Construction (MILCON) spending that funds new or replacement facilities. Each of the spending lines play a role in ensuring base infrastructure is adequate.

The department said it was requesting $36 billion in combined FSRM and MILCON funding, including nearly $3 billion to replace facilities that were destroyed or damaged by last year’s hurricanes.

The MILCON budget also includes $3.6 billion in funds the department is setting aside just in case President Trump decides to use emergency authorities to spend military construction money on his proposed border wall in 2020, just as he is preparing to do this year. Officials said they made that allocation to avoid having to take money away from projects Congress will have already decided to fund by that time.

But it’s too late to set aside similar funding for 2019, and any MILCON money the president diverts to the wall this year will have to come from projects Congress has already explicitly funded, and so the 2020 request also includes another $3.6 billion to “back-fill” those diversions.

On Monday, the Pentagon repeated an earlier promise that it would not divert any funding for contracts that have already been obligated. Rather, officials said, wall construction would only be paid for by deferring some 2019 MILCON projects until next year.

The department also released a full listing of the 2019 projects Congress has funded but for which no contracts have been signed yet. The list represents a rough approximation of the ones that could be vulnerable to delays this year if the president prevails in his legal and political fight with lawmakers over the emergency declaration.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday, Patrick Shanahan, acting defense secretary, said he would release the list by that afternoon — a commitment the department did not meet until Monday.

But even then, some Senators were incensed that they had not already received any of the MILCON details from DoD, and that the data would arrive only after a previously-scheduled vote to disapprove the president’s emergency declaration.

“I feel completely sandbagged,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Shanahan. “The service secretaries have had that list … they have been willing to share the list of their unobligated MILCON projects, but they have been told that they cannot do that, it has to come through the OSD … I think we’re entitled to know where the money might come from, especially since you just said this is a multi-year declaration that opens up a spigot into the MILCON budget. I don’t think you giving us that list after the vote, when we’ve been asking for it for a month, is a good faith response to the request of this committee.”

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