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Local Officials Fire Their Big Guns in Battle to Retain Naval Station

May 12, 1991|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Invoking everything from the city's balmy weather to Navy reports, Long Beach government and business leaders last week launched the first salvo in their battle to stop the Department of Defense from closing the local naval station.

More than a dozen officials defended the station Wednesday in testimony before an independent commission appointed by President Bush that is reviewing the Pentagon's recommendations to close 31 major military bases across the country.

In sometimes rambling comments, the speakers rebutted the Pentagon's reasons for wanting to shut the Long Beach station--now home port to 38 ships and 16,000 sailors--and insisted that the closure would not save money in the long run.

"Using their own documents, we pointed out inconsistencies and poked holes in their arguments," Assistant City Manager John F. Shirey said after Long Beach's 90-minute presentation at the commission hearing in Los Angeles. "The information that has been used to make this decision is flawed."

Some of the city's arguments did appear to catch the attention of the commission's chairman, Jim Courter. "I think there was some very provocative testimony in respect to Long Beach and I guess what I want to do is talk to the Navy," the former New Jersey congressman said later.

Still, Courter made it clear that he takes seriously the Navy's desire to consolidate bases in a time of shrinking defense needs. And no matter how hard it argued, the Long Beach delegation could not refute the simple fact that the local naval station duplicates facilities only 112 miles away at the much larger San Diego Naval Base.

Only two of the commission's eight members were on hand for most of the Long Beach presentation, a fact that did not escape Shirey. "It's really disappointing when you think there are going to be four of them here, and you show up and there are two and the third walks in when you're finished."

The hearing was held less than a month after the surprise announcement that the 49-year-old Long Beach station is among those the Pentagon thinks the country can do without. Caught completely off guard by the proposed closure, local officials have been scrambling for Defense Department material to counter the recommendation.

"We've been operating quite frankly on pretty scant information," Shirey said, adding that he received 100 pages of reports the afternoon before the hearing.

From Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana to Navy retirees, Long Beach boosters told the commission that shutting the Long Beach station would be a mistake for the government and a disaster for the city.

Dana reminded panel members that the Long Beach Naval Station was shuttered once before, in 1974. It reopened in 1979. "The impacts of that closure on the city of Long Beach were devastating, so much so that it has taken billions of dollars in public and private funds and nearly two decades to come back as far as Long Beach has.

"Why," Dana continued, "is Long Beach being asked to face its second base closure when many areas--many of which have inferior strategic importance or military capability--haven't faced their first closure?"

Again and again speakers stated that while the Pentagon last month said the Long Beach facility suffers from a number of shortcomings, the station has in other Navy reports received high marks--higher than bases that are not on the closure list.

Mayor Ernie Kell described the estimated annual cost savings of $112 million from closing Long Beach as "an accounting gimmick." Most of the Long Beach-based ships would simply be assigned to another port, he pointed out, while the Navy would hold on to the station's 240 acres and continue to billet sailors there when their ships are docked for repairs at the Naval Shipyard next door.

"Where are the savings? We're turning out a few lights," argued John Higginson, president of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and a retired Navy officer who commanded the Long Beach station in the late 1980s.

Local officials also wondered why the Defense Department wants to padlock Long Beach to save money when it is going ahead with plans to build a new naval base in Everett, Wash., at a cost of more than $250 million.

"Stop Everett now. Let Long Beach live," implored City Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, whose district includes the naval station.

In response, Courter noted that even though the Navy wants to centralize regional facilities it also wants a major presence in the Pacific Northwest for strategic reasons.

As for the Navy's contradictory evaluations of Long Beach, he said in remarks to the press, "you'll find that the different services periodically rated a facility higher a few years ago and lower today. . . . The value of some of these bases probably will change, deteriorate, with changes in (international) circumstances."

NEXT STEP

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, appointed by President Bush, is holding public hearings on military base closures proposed by the Pentagon. By July 1 the commission must submit its independent evaluation of the closure recommendations to the President, who must either accept or reject the list by July 15. If he approves the panel's recommendations, he will send them to Congress, which must either approve or reject the list--without amendment--within 45 days or the end of the current session.

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