Sailors often are referred to as the “Center of Our Universe” and the asymmetrical advantage in a conflict. However, the conditions in which they live and work are chronically underfunded.
By policy and law, E-1 through E-4 personnel with less than four years of service are not authorized basic allowance for housing (BAH) to obtain quarters in the local economy. The expectation is that these sailors will be housed in unaccompanied housing (UH)—formerly known as the barracks or bachelor enlisted quarters—maintained by the Navy under its $1.4 billion Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization (SRM) budget. While $1.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, it diminishes very quickly when spread across 71 installations around the globe.
One of several SRM categories, Sustainment (ST) is defined as the maintenance and repair activities necessary to keep a typical inventory of facilities in good working order and is the most relevant for this discussion. In Navy Region Mid-Atlantic (NRMA), the ST budgetary control is approximately $343 million for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020. That funding must cover all preventative and corrective maintenance associated with the life safety, environmental controls, and physical condition of every building on 13 installations ranging from Naval Station Great Lakes to Naval Station Norfolk, including the Portsmouth, Virginia, and Kittery, Maine, shipyards.
Consider the number of buildings on an installation, the vast majority of which are essential to some command accomplishing its mission. Given this tight budget, leaders often must choose between maintaining a hangar used to service jets, repairing the environmental controls in a server room linking a type commander to subordinate units, remodeling a barracks, or providing air conditioning for a gym. This is known as taking risk in the shore by diverting most of the Navy’s budget to deployable units.
As a result, buildings are maintained at approximately 87 percent of the minimum maintenance necessary to keep them habitable—up from an average of 65 percent over the past 15 years.
Anyone who has rented an apartment or owned a home knows that things break without warning, often with catastrophic consequences. The toilet clogs and overflows into the hall and three other rooms, resulting in several thousand dollars to replace carpeting, plumbing, and drywall. A small water spot is ignored until it grows mold and a major roof leak is uncovered. The estimate to replace a single UH building’s roof on Naval Station Norfolk is $5 million—or 1.5 percent of the total annual budget for all buildings in NRMA.
There is no demolition budget for FY20 in NRMA, nor has there been for a number of years. Buildings that are no longer viable because repair cost exceeds replacement cost or that have reached the end of their useful lives cannot be demolished. Sailors drive by dilapidated buildings on their way to work in hangars and office buildings that often have roof leaks or environmental control issues.
The quality of living and working conditions for E-1–E-4 personnel has a real, tangible impact on morale and productivity. Sailors are told to report material issues on their equipment and not live with broken gear and to provide forceful backup until someone listens. However, this does not appear to apply to the facilities they live and work in.
Working Capital Fund
This year, Navy Facilities Engineering Command (NavFac) dissolved its working capital fund in favor of funding through the general fund. How does this affect junior sailors? NavFac previously purchased utilities and sold them back to the Navy at a flat and often slightly higher rate. The surplus was used to fund and maintain infrastructure on installations, removing major projects from competing for scarce military construction monies. Now UH projects must compete against demolition of old steam vaults or pier electricity modernization projects.
Morale, Welfare, and Recreation
Morale, Welfare, and Recreation’s (MWR’s) mission is to deliver high-quality, customer-focused programs and services that contribute to resiliency, retention, readiness, and quality of life. MWR uses a combination of nonappropriated funds (NAF) generated from admission, rentals, or sales and appropriated funds (APF) authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act to operate.
MWR operations are broken into three categories:
- Category A is programs considered essential in meeting the organizational objectives of the military services, promoting physical and mental well-being of military members. This includes gyms, aquatic training facilities, parks and picnic areas, and single sailor programs.
- Category B programs satisfy the basic physiological and psychological needs of service members and their families, including child and youth programs, child development centers, and some bowling centers and outdoor recreational programs. These operations generate NAF revenues but cannot be sustained without substantial APF support.
- Category C is revenue-generating programs that contribute to building a sense of community and enjoyment. These include food and beverage operations, golf courses, marinas, base theaters, and some bowling centers. These operations should generate enough income to cover most of their operating costs but still rely on limited APF support.
The Category B and C programs are frequented more often by the retiree community than by active-duty military members. Golf courses and bowling centers within NRMA consistently fail to generate enough income to break even, even at an APF subsidized level. The vast majority of junior sailors are not interested in playing golf or bowling. They do not wish to learn to sail at a marina, nor do they own horses requiring stabling. Yet these operations continue at a significant loss.
Category C operations derive their funding from three sources: NAF, APF converted to NAF, and Navy Exchange profits. A strong argument can be made that if infrequently used operations were closed, additional funding would be available for programs that are more important to today’s force, such as childcare.
Yet shuttering them in favor of facilities and programs that junior sailors are more likely to use causes public outcry. For example, Naval Air Station Oceana recently announced that the stable operation would close. This elicited a letter from a number of current and former patrons to the local TV station, several elected officials, and the regional commander demanding that the operation continue, arguing that the business could be made profitable under different management. Even if true, this ignores the $12 million in facility improvements identified during a recent veterinarian inspection that require immediate remediation. Because of the large price tag, limited number of patrons, and zero operational impact, this project likely will never be funded. Closing the facility is the correct and financially responsible decision.
Where to Invest
Power projection relies on deployable ships, submarines, and aircraft, and that must be where the majority of funding is spent. However, Navy leaders cannot act surprised or outraged when a facility, pier, or maintenance hangar is no longer mission capable or a UH building must be vacated because of mold or water intrusion. There need be no long investigation into how these events occurred.
The best job possible is being done with what is available, but if the Navy hopes to invest in deployable assets and cyber capabilities and where sailors live and work, then the recreational programs the retiree community frequents may be the cost.