SACRAMENTO — Civilian workers and city officials fearful about the economic fallout from the threatened closure of nearby McClellan Air Force Base appeared Thursday to be taking little solace from Washington's latest plan to soften the blow.
Locally, the Pentagon proposal to close the sprawling airplane maintenance center but salvage some civilian jobs by turning them over to California private industries was receiving the same dubious reception that it got among politicians.
"It's a cop-out," said Bill Anderson, an electrical repair expert at the base, during a work break. "They're trying to please everyone and aren't pleasing anybody."
"It's about as useful to us as a screen door on a submarine," said Michael Picker, Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr.'s chief of staff.
Those sentiments, and others that emerged in several interviews, echoed misgivings expressed earlier by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and California's two Democratic U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. All three political leaders have described the proposal as unworkable and have called for keeping McClellan open.
The latest alternative, presented to President Clinton by Defense Secretary William J. Perry on Wednesday, calls for accepting the recommendation of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission to close McClellan. But it rejects the panel's proposal to transfer aircraft maintenance work now done there to Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania.
Instead, the Air Force would contract with civilian companies in California to perform enough of that work to save about half of McClellan's 11,000 civilian jobs.
On Thursday, there was debate about whether President Clinton needs to act at all to save some of the jobs at stake at McClellan or whether the latest proposal is an overblown gesture to recession-weary California, which will have 54 electoral votes in the 1996 presidential election.
Base closing commission Chairman Alan J. Dixon said Thursday night that the panel's report already provides for the privatization of most work at McClellan--except for 800 jobs in radio and radar maintenance that would be transferred to Tobyhanna.
"Our report is a good one, and I don't think it should be altered," Dixon said, questioning the need for Perry's recommendations. "My problem is that I don't know what Perry plans to do. I have a vague notion that it involves privatization, but we already allow for that." The 800 jobs at Tobyhanna are "a pretty narrow piece" of the McClellan shutdown plan, Dixon said.
Outside the McClellan cafeteria Thursday, several base workers said the privatization plan from the Pentagon offered them little assurance. They spoke of difficulties and lost benefits even if they were among the lucky ones and were required to switch from Civil Service to private sector jobs.
"You lose all those benefits and start over at the bottom," said Rich Smith, 48, an aircraft field systems specialist. "Besides, they say the jobs will stay in California, but will they stay at McClellan? California's a big state."
In Washington, Perry on Thursday spelled out more details of the Pentagon's new proposal and offered reassurance that McClellan workers who are retained would not be uprooted.
He said the proposal includes "privatization in place," meaning that "key skilled workers" would continue working at McClellan, "but now under contract to a private contractor, instead of [at] a government depot."
Wilson, who has declared that McClellan should remain open as a military base to ensure an adequate national defense, said at a news conference Wednesday that the Clinton Administration has "corrupted the process" of military downsizing.
He said the compromise to save some McClellan jobs contains "little if any guarantee as to how" the rest of the jobs would be saved.
Many of those who would lose their McClellan jobs would face special hardships, said Anderson, the electrical repair worker. "If you're Civil Service, and most of us here are, you don't draw unemployment when you get laid off like people in the private sector do, because we don't pay into it."
Picker, of the Sacramento mayor's staff, said city and business leaders continue pressing Clinton to reject anything short of keeping McClellan going at full strength.
"McClellan represents a half-billion-dollar payroll, and a total of $1.5 billion in the regional economy in payroll, vendor business and spinoff services," he said. A closure of the base would mean a loss throughout the community of about 31,000 jobs, Picker said.
Closure of McClellan would follow the shuttering of two other Sacramento-area military installations, Mather Air Force Base in 1989 and the Sacramento Army Depot in 1992.
The Sacramento Bee, the capital's daily newspaper, appeared to capture its community's doubts in an editorial Thursday. It said, "The Air Force [should] keep its air logistics depot at McClellan . . . sparing California and Sacramento from the blow of yet another base closure."
Times staff writers Art Pine and James Bornemeier in Washington contributed to this story.