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Pulaski County looks to FLW growth for help with financial decline
Pulaski County looks to FLW growth for help with financial decline

Fort Leonard Wood spokesman Mike Alley answers questions by county commissioners about growth of the post's population.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Feb. 9, 2009) — After running a $150,000 deficit in 2008 when expected economic growth didn’t happen, county commissioners were forced in December to borrow money and decided in their January budget meetings to plan for a zero-growth budget in 2009.

Even that may not have been enough cuts. County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer reported Monday morning that in December, the county’s sales tax receipts for November were $3,000 less than a year ago, and the January check for December receipts was $7,500 less than a year before that, for a total of $10,500 less so far in sales tax revenue for the general fund this year.

“Surprise, surprise,” responded County Commissioner Ricky Zweerink.

“It’s frightening,” Linnenbringer said.

Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall was cautiously optimistic and told his colleagues that changes in Fort Leonard Wood’s population could significantly change the county’s sales tax receipts. Ransdall noted that the November and December sales tax receipts don’t reflect the return of Fort Leonard Wood’s 94th Engineer Battalion from Iraq.

“We did not have the influx; remember that a lot of those people came back in January who were returning to Fort Leonard Wood,” Ransdall said.

Fort Leonard Wood spokesman Mike Alley came to the commission and said local governing officials can expect growth in the post’s population, but not as much as some may have thought.

Alley also noted that he’ll soon be moving into a rural part of Pulaski County and will deal with rural issues on his property off Highway 17.

“It’s the official sheriff’s department turn-around point and I think I should bill you for white chat as all the sheriff’s patrol cars turn around,” Alley joked.

Alley said he tailored his Monday presentation to the needs of county government, as they’d been expressed to him recently.

“The key word for the county, I think, is population. Are there going to be changes? Is there going to be dramatic growth? Is there going to be small growth?” Alley said. “From a population perspective, yes, there is going to be growth. Is it going to be huge monstrous growth this year? No. But I certainly think after doing some studies and talking to a lot of people, there is going to be continued growth.”

Dollar numbers for construction projects will be very large, he said, with more than $1 billion in projects already scheduled.

“Yes, that’s going to bring in new businesses, whether they be transient people or anywhere else, there’s going to be growth,” Alley said. “Our training load is expected to grow, and while you may not see that as permanent party infrastructure growth, there is going to be some growth to assist with the huge increase in training load.”

Large increases in the number of basic trainees and advanced training course students can be expected as well, he said.

“I believe the commanding general said it’s going to be our largest training population since the Vietnam era, expecting to train about 90,000 initial entry soldiers this year,” Alley said. “The reason for that is there is a growth for the Army primarily geared toward the things Fort Leonard Wood trains — engineer, military police, chemical and truck drivers. If you push dirt for Uncle Sam, you trained at Fort Leonard Wood, and a vast majority of the people who have learned to drive an 18-wheeler learned to do that at Fort Leonard Wood.”

Calculating the number of permanent party military personnel and civilian support staff is much harder, Alley said.

“The post is growing and if people would tell you an exact number, I’ll tell you that number wouldn’t be accurate,” Alley said. “The biggest thing that has an impact on the numbers of our growth is the number of people leaving, because we know the 94th Engineer Battalion returned from Iraq at full strength. Some of those people are going to be leaving and then a percentage of those will be replaced as they leave. Will it be one for one? Probably not. But I can’t find anybody who can tell me for every soldier in a combat unit who departs, how many soldiers are they going to get back if it isn’t one-for-one.”

Alley said the 5th Engineers are scheduled to return in August but might return earlier. He said unlike prior deployments when the families of soldiers left the area, only about 35 percent of the families of married soldiers in the 5th Engineer Battalion had left the area when the 5th Engineers deployed, and that number has now dropped to 30 percent because some came back to Fort Leonard Wood after initially leaving.

“No one can really predict if it’s going to be earlier, but they are scheduled to be back in August, for sure,” Alley said. “As the war has progressed over the number of years the number of families leaving has gone down. They’ve figured it out; you can’t go home to your parents and have everything be just like when you lived there when you’ve got your children with you, and the Army does a very good job of taking care of families while the soldier is deployed and the communities have certainly done a good job.”

The return of two combat units — the 94th Engineers and the 5th Engineers — won’t be the only major impact in the area’s population, he said.

“The reason we know we are going to continue to grow is that the units under the 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade are brand-new to the Army, so they’re going to be filling from zero up to their potential where they’re going to be and it won’t be like a third of them will leave for the next three years. We’re going to grow the units and so those brand-new units will continue to fill with soldiers and their spouses,” Alley said. “It is going to be growth, is going to be slow growth, and there is going to be a bump up, if you will, in August when the 5th Engineers return.”

Alley cautioned that just because Fort Leonard Wood is getting more soldiers doesn’t mean they’ll be living on post. More and more will be living off-post in the surrounding communities, Alley said, and what’s good for the county’s economic growth isn’t necessarily good for the Waynesville R-VI School District’s financial picture.

“The number of housing units on Fort Leonard Wood will go down overall. I don’t have the number that are going to be converted, let’s say, from a duplex to a one-plex, but they are focusing on the three-bedroom houses and creating some bigger housing units,” Alley said. “Certainly there are challenges out there as we reduce the number of houses because impact aid is different for on-post housing from what the school district gets from off-post … While the county would love for more housing and more soldiers to live out in the community, certainly the school district sees that as a challenge because there is less money per pupil when the soldier lives off the installation.”

Since houses on military installations aren’t assessed property tax payments, the Waynesville R-VI School District receives substantially more “impact aid” money from the federal government to educate military children who live in tax-free property on post than it does from federal impact aid for students who live off-post. School district officials have previously noted that when military populations transition from on-post to off-post housing and federal impact aid revenues go down, local property taxes in the Waynesville R-VI School District are lower than what would be required to make up the difference.

Fort Leonard Wood officials have been criticized in the past for providing population numbers that turned out to be incomplete, inaccurate, or premature, but Alley said post officials are doing as much as they can to work with economic development personnel to get accurate data.

Alley also offered a tour of Fort Leonard Wood to the commissioners, especially newly elected Western District Commissioner Ricky Zweerink, and anyone visiting the area who may be interested in moving businesses to the region.

“I worked out there for quite some time and knew the post like the back of my hand, but to be honest with you, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been there,” Zweerink said. “When they built what looked like a town, is it one of the training areas? It was amazing. It looked just like a town you’d see out in the community.”

That’s correct, Alley said, and an example of training going on today at Fort Leonard Wood. Alley said it’s beneficial for civilian leaders to see where service members train, not only to get a better idea what they do but also where the training facilities are located since it may affect where they choose to live off-post. Some of the training areas are located in places where people living off-post may choose to go out gates other than the post’s main gate to St. Robert.

Zweerink asked about possible reductions in military expenses.

“I was watching the news the other day,” Zweerink said. “They were wanting a 10 percent reduction in the military over a period of time. Is that going to affect us out here?”

“We don’t know, but budgets are being discussed and so forth,” Alley responded. “But the key is, and the key for growth, is that as the Army looks to grow, the things we train here are the primary focuses of that growth: engineers, military police and chemical, and you cannot forget those truck drivers.”

Ransdall asked if reports he’s heard of a 20,000 increase per year in the number of trainees and a permanent party increase of several thousand servicemembers are correct.

“It depends on what numbers you are looking at; I would say about 1,500 more (permanent party personnel),” Alley said. “There again, when we talk authorizations versus what is actually filled, a challenge in the long-term future, as a unit really builds up to its full strength, it then deploys, so you may briefly fill a little growth and then as long as we continue, that unit will depart the area.”

Getting solid numbers is important, Ransdall said.

“People invest large amounts of money in construction and apartments, new housing and whatever,” Ransdall said. “When we talk about less numbers at Fort Leonard Wood, back in those days you had maybe 400 vacant homes, too. You had a high vacancy rate; people weren’t in those homes. So even though you’re going to reduce the number, it doesn’t mean you’re reducing numbers of viable housing and kicking people off post.”

While Alley said it’s correct that people aren’t being thrown off Fort Leonard Wood, there is a waiting list of about 30 families who want to move on Fort Leonard Wood but can’t get housing at the moment until someone leaves the area or renovations are finished on a house.

Eastern District Commissioner Bill Farnham asked about services being provided by Fort Leonard Wood for the retiree population.

“Is there any planned growth for the retiree services such as hospitalization or anything like that, say a dialysis clinic?” Farnham said. “A lot of them use VA in Columbia. But since our area is growing with so many and the dialysis is a critical issue, as you know, we’ve had a few people ask about that.”

“That’s a good question, and I can find out,” Alley said.

Alley noted that an ongoing study mostly funded by a grant from the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment is attempting to quantify the value of a highly skilled workforce of military retirees that could be valuable not only in such specialties as chemical soldiers knowing how to handle radioactive products and MPs with law enforcement training but also for general businesses that need skilled managers.

“Couldn’t any business capitalize on the leadership training that they get in terms of management?” Alley asked.

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