By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – First they were, then they weren't. Now they will stay, at least temporarily.
The 28 civilian workers at Fort Hood's Visitors Control Center were given a roller coaster ride Friday as the Army's largest post battled through another round of money shortages.
The workers with the San Antonio-based Training Rehabilitation and Development Institute began the day believing their contract would run out at 11 p.m., when they would be replaced by uniformed troops.
Late Friday, they won a week's reprieve when enough money was found to keep them on the job until midnight July 28, said Burton E. Oliver, the acting division chief for Fort Hood's police services division.
Fort Hood's latest money juggles followed the Army's announcement Thursday that its budget woes have continued to deepen despite passage of a supplemental spending bill to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Questions about the status of the civilian gate guard contract also surfaced Friday as post leaders scrambled to keep the garrison functioning on a shoestring budget.
Starting at $12.21 an hour and armed with Glock 9 mm pistols and 132 hours of training, 476 contract guards in December 2003 took over what had been a two-year, round-the-clock soldier presence at the Central Texas post's 24 primary entrances.
Lt. Col. James Hutton, III Corps spokesman, was adamant Friday that the post's garrison command had no plans to return the gate duty to the military.
"We are not putting soldiers on the gate," he said. "We are putting soldiers only in the Visitors Control Center."
A woman answering the telephone at Akal's offices in Harker Heights said the Santa Cruz, N.M.,-based company had not received any official word from the Army about its contract.
"We have not had confirmation of that yet," she said in response to questions about possible cuts in the gate guard contract.
She said the division director was at the firm's headquarters to discuss the issue and deferred questions about the contract to corporate headquarters, saying Daya Singh Khalsa, Akal's co-founder and senior vice president, was the spokesman on the contract status. He did not answer calls seeking comment Friday.
Akal Security is owned by the Sikh Dharma, a gated community in New Mexico that follows Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh spiritual leader and yoga master. The company has more than 12,000 employees and federal contracts exceeding $1 billion that include security for sensitive government sites, such as military installations, federal courts, airports and water supply systems. Security service is in line with the ancient Sikh tradition of the warrior-saint, company leaders say.
Converting noncombat and support duties to civilian contractors and government workers was a centerpiece of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's initiative to maximize the military's shrinking uniformed ranks after recruiting difficulties added to a strained mission at the start of the war in 2003.
However, with the Army strapped for cash and bearing the brunt of the war action, contracts for those services have been severely cut or axed this year.
In May, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody blamed the budget woes on Congress' failure to pass President Bush's $92.2 billion supplemental request for the wars as he announced the service was clamping down on spending for travel, civilian hiring and other expenses not essential to the war mission.
The cuts, announced June 1, at Fort Hood included contracts for cleaning services, grounds maintenance, information services and government vehicles and soldiers have been tasked once again to mow lawns outside of their units.
The spending cutbacks were to have been lifted once the supplemental spending bill was approved, but in its announcement this week, the Army said it has decided to extend most of those cutbacks until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The spending bill's passage for the current year also continued to leave the Army, which has about 100,000 of the 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, facing $500 million in cuts to its garrison budget and spiraling costs for replacing increasingly overused and worn equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Washington, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said that in 2004 it cost $4 billion to repair or replace war equipment, but now it has reached $12 billion to $13 billion.
"In my view, we will continue to see this escalate," he told the Associated Press, noting the Army is using up equipment at four times the rate for which it was designed.
Schoomaker traced the problem's origin to entering the Iraq war in 2003 with a $56 billion shortfall in equipment. The Army managed the situation by rotating in fresh units while keeping the same equipment in Iraq. Over time, he told the AP, the equipment has worn out without sufficient investment in replacements.
The Army chief said there is too little money available to keep up with equipment repairs. He said the Army's five major repair depots are operating at only 50 percent of capacity, resulting in a backlog of 1,000 Humvee utility vehicles awaiting attention at the Red River Army Depot in Texas and 500 tanks at a depot in Alabama.
The Army's 2006 budget is $98.2 billion, and the 2007 budget request not yet approved by Congress seeks $111 billion for the Army.
The Army said it will limit its purchase of supplies to those that are deemed critical to war requirements; cancel or postpone all nonessential travel; stop the shipment of goods unless they are needed for deployed or deploying troops; freeze the hiring of new civilians; restrict use of government credit cards; freeze all new contract awards; and release temporary employees and some service-contract workers.
Budget crunches at Fort Hood so far this fiscal year have included its $4.5 million contract with Northrop Grumman to run the post's railhead, which has been the heartbeat for the Iraq war deployments since 2003. In May, cell phones were cut and utility bills at III Corps as the $241 million garrison budget ran short in early May before $4 million was found to keep the lights on temporarily.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Contact Debbie Stevenson at email@example.com