FORT STEWART, Ga. - Plumbers, electricians, road pavers and other civilian workers will march into a movie theater Thursday to learn the fate of their jobs with the Army.
Col. Bill Betson will announce whether 304 positions in Fort Stewart's public works department will remain government jobs or will be handed over to a private business.
"It's important to know that whatever happens, the work force will be reduced," Col. Betson said. "There's going to be a rift."
Although the announcement will be made Thursday, it could be a while before the cuts take place, because the outcome could be protested by contractors, the federal employees union or the Army. At Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., protests have delayed final decisions for several years, Col. Betson said.
The move toward privatizing government jobs on military bases is happening throughout the country. It's part of a congressional order for government organizations to find leaner, meaner ways to do business.
The Department of Defense ordered its installations to conduct the studies in 1997.
Since then, Fort Stewart has been looking at jobs within three areas - directorate of public works, directorate of Readiness and directorate of training. In all, 868 positions are under study, said Lt. Col. Mike Ramsey, director of resources at Fort Stewart. Those jobs average about $47,000 a year each.
Fort Stewart is following strict government rules that outline how the decision is made. Basically, a job description is written and advertised. Interested private companies submit plans on how they would accomplish the work and how much it would cost the government, Col. Betson said.
The Army hires a consultant to review its practices and give advice on how to do the job cheaper and more efficiently, he said.
A review board chooses the best proposal from the pool of private contractors and compares it to the government's plan. The most efficient and cost effective plan wins the job, Col. Betson said. At 10 a.m. Thursday, the private contractor's bid and the government's bid will be fed into a computer for number crunching. A winner will be selected, and Col. Betson will inform his commanders of the outcome.
People are nervous.
Dale Kicklighter, a supervisor in the supply and services division, won't know the outcome of his position for another two years. He works under the directorate of readiness, which makes sure the soldiers have the supplies they need and keeps them prepared for deployments.
"There's so much uncertainty out there," Mr. Kicklighter said.
The uncertainty is taking its toll on workers, he said. As a supervisor, he has worked with consultants hired by the Army to analyze government jobs.
"You tell your people they're coming in to help us and your people look at you like, `Yeah, right,"' Mr. Kicklighter said.
But Col. Betson says morale is high and he is impressed with employees' performances under the circumstances.
"What I tell them often is, you're in competition just like those on the outside," he said.
Whatever the outcome Thursday, it will have a huge long-term impact on Fort Stewart and its surrounding communities. The jobs at Fort Stewart provide good wages and benefits in a region that is lacking in large industrial jobs. The civilian payroll puts about $89 million annually into the local economy.
Col. Betson could not predict an outcome. He realizes every civilian employee is anticipating Thursday's outcome.
"Sooner or later, everybody else on this post is going to be affected by this," he said.