SAVANNAH, Ga. — With the Iraq war over and the troops from Fort Stewart all home, Susan McCorkle has seen a fragile economic recovery under way in the city of Hinesville as new retailers opened shop and her family’s deli kept busy catering holiday parties on the Army post.
She can only hope it lasts. Commanders recently announced cutbacks that will require Fort Stewart to eliminate 340 civilian jobs in the coming months. It comes at a time when McCorkle, 2012 chairwoman of the local Chamber of Commerce, insists “we can’t afford any.”
“We’re all still struggling to get back to where we need to be,” said McCorkle, owner of Poole’s Deli in downtown Hinesville. “Anytime anybody loses a job, it has a trickle-down effect.”
In the decade of wartime that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Georgia’s military bases have seemed nearly recession-proof. Not anymore.
Since November, five of the state’s major bases have announced plans to cut nearly 1,200 civilian jobs by next fall. Although one base couldn’t provide a cost estimate and another’s was incomplete, available figures showed the combined cuts would represent a loss of more than $84 million in salaries and benefits.
The heaviest tolls will be felt at Robins Air Force Base south of Macon, which is shedding 516 civilian jobs, and at Fort Stewart, where 340 job losses will be shared with neighboring Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. On a smaller scale, Fort Gordon in Augusta and Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta are cutting 39 civilian positions apiece.
The totals account for a small percentage of the bases’ civilian workers, whose jobs run the gamut from security guards to accountants, rifle range managers to administrative assistants. Commanders insist they’ll be able to make most of the cuts by eliminating vacant positions and through early retirements and buyouts — though some layoffs aren’t being ruled out.
“It’s probably more realistic to say we’ll have a small handful, and by that I mean less than 10,” said Gary Jones, spokesman for Fort Benning in Columbus, which plans to cut about 50 positions in addition to 200 eliminated since summer. “Hopefully we won’t have that many (layoffs). The goal is zero.”
The Georgia base cuts are part of broader efforts by the Army and Air Force to trim their budgets. The Army announced last summer that it would eliminate 8,700 civilian jobs by Sept. 30, 2012. The Air Force is slashing 9,000 jobs from its civilian workforce as part of a restructuring plan that would add 5,900 positions in other areas.
Regardless of how few workers actually get laid off, the cutbacks still mean fewer jobs and more lost wages for Georgia as unemployment continues to hover just below 10 percent and businesses keep shedding workers. According to the state Department of Labor, Georgia lost 20,000 jobs between November 2010 and November 2011.
And many of the military jobs on the chopping block came with excellent pay and benefits. Fort Gordon spokesman Buz Yarnell said the 39 jobs being trimmed have a combined payroll and benefits worth $4 million. The combined losses for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield are estimated at $22 million, said spokesman Kevin Larson.
State economists, who predict Georgia will start to see small job gains a year from now, say the military cutbacks aren’t too surprising. Years of high unemployment, sagging consumer spending and declining property values have diminished tax revenues and forced governments to lighten their payrolls.
The 1,200 military jobs being slashed in Georgia won’t be devastating, though “it’s a significant number of jobs,” said Jeffrey Humphreys, economic forecaster for the University of Georgia.
“If you put all these together, they would be the equivalent not necessarily of a large manufacturer, but still you could compare it to a large transportation or logistics firm,” Humphreys said.
Early retirements and buyouts should help cushion the blow, Humphreys said, because they usually don’t rattle consumer confidence the way layoffs can. However, he also predicts these jobs losses may merely foreshadow even deeper cuts down the road, as the federal government struggles to slash spending and reduce its deficit.
“Where Georgia will really get hit the most is the military bases,” Humphreys said.
At Robins Air Force Base, Georgia’s largest industrial complex, the 516 jobs being lost barely make up 3 percent of the sprawling base’s total civilian workforce of 15,600. Base officials said 238 Robins workers would be leaving by Dec. 31 after accepting early retirement or buyouts, with the rest to be determined after another round of incentive offers in January.
Still, the base commander has told employees and the surrounding community of Warner Robins to brace themselves for more cuts to follow.
“These are challenging times in our nation and it is likely the reductions I talked about today are only the beginning,” Maj. Gen. Robert H. McMahon said as he announced the cutbacks in November.
For Neil Suggs, whose Warner Robins business installs sinks, countertops and other kitchen and bathroom fixtures, it’s just one more piece of bad news after years of struggling. He says commercial jobs have all but dried up and home remodeling, once a fraction of his business, is now the biggest source of income for his company, Marble Masters of Middle Georgia.
A former Chamber of Commerce chairman, Suggs says business leaders used to fear heavy losses from the military’s periodic rounds of base closures. Now he says he’s more frightened that the smaller cutbacks will keep coming.
“What we feel like is going to happen is we’re going to die from 1,000 cuts,” Suggs said. “We’re just doomed. I can’t find any small business people who are happy.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. David Bockel, director of the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee, said some military cutbacks were expected as the U.S. has ended the war in Iraq and is drawing down its forces in Afghanistan.
Early retirements and even buyouts should keep many of the former civilian workers from abandoning their military communities, particularly if they own homes, said Bockel, whose committee works with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
In Hinesville outside Fort Stewart, Mayor Jim Thomas said the cutbacks won’t help the budding economic revival he’s seeing, but he doubts the bad news will overpower the new businesses that are opening.
“Any job layoffs affect us, but this one is more or less expected after a war,” Thomas said. “As long as we’re seeing some growth, we will survive.”