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MacDill families fear commissary closings

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Published:   |   Updated: February 2, 2014 at 04:27 PM

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For those who live on the base and the thousands of military retirees living nearby, the MacDill commissary offers about 30 percent savings over the cost of food and other items at civilian supermarkets.

It also employs 103 people.

But that benefit of service — and the jobs it generates — are in danger of disappearing. The Department of Defense may close base commissaries as part of a plan to reduce spending by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade.

“I think I just had a mini panic attack,” Dina Dyson-Cersley, a MacDill military spouse, said in a Facebook message when she found out the commissaries may be in the Pentagon’s cross hairs. “I seriously don’t know what I’d do.’’

She wrote that she went to Publix once because she forgot something at the commissary, and “I almost fell out ... it seemed sooooooo expensive to me.”

The commissary at MacDill and 244 other bases worldwide are open to active duty, Guard and Reserve members, military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, 100 percent disabled veterans and their authorized family members, according to the Defense Commissary Agency, which runs the commissaries. It has an annual budget of $1.4 billion and annual sales of nearly $6 billion.

The commissaries employ about 16,000.

But according to the American Legion, the Pentagon is looking to cut the agency’s budget to $400 million. If that happens, only 24 commissaries would remain open and those would be overseas and in rural areas, the Legion says. That would mean the MacDill commissary — the 24th largest in the system with nearly $60 million in sales during the last fiscal year — would close.

The Pentagon, in an American Forces Press Service story, said the agency was “not asked to come up with a contingency plan to close 100 percent of U.S. commissaries.”

The agency was asked “for a range of options, including how the system would operate with reduced or no taxpayer subsidies,” the service said, quoting Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“This is yet another undeserved blow to our men and women in service – and their families – in the name of ‘necessary cutbacks’ to reduce an ungainly national deficit,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the 2.4 million-member American Legion, in a statement on the legion’s website. “Like the trimming of expenses to be made by reducing military retirees’ pensions, this is an inexcusable way of attempting to fix a fault by penalizing the blameless.’’

Pentagon officials say it is too early to talk about specific budget cuts, adding that no commissaries have been closed yet.

“We are in the process of finalizing budget provisions for fiscal year 2015,” said Joy Crabaugh, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “As the Department of Defense faces increasingly constrained budgets, we are identifying all programs for cost-cutting and money-saving opportunities. We are looking at all programs, but we are not going to speak to the internal process (the Department of Defense) uses to make these assessments.”

The commissary is vital to the MacDill and retiree community, one of the nation’s largest, said Carole Moore Adamczyk. As both the wife of an Air Force veteran and the former family readiness coordinator for U.S. Special Operations Command Central, she knows first-hand the importance of savings, especially for enlisted service members who earn less than $24,000 per year.

“These young couples especially have to watch their money,” Adamczyk said. “For the commissary to close, it would really have a big impact on them.”

Adrianna Lupher, the wife of an active duty Air Force officer based at MacDill, said that not only does she save “a considerable amount of money” at the commissary, but that it provides “viable employment opportunities for military spouses wherever they go.”

Any changes to the commissary system would reverberate well beyond the military. Some 30,000 jobs are tied directly to companies providing food, goods and services to the commissaries, according to Stephen Rossetti, spokesman for the American Logistics Association, a trade group representing commissary suppliers.

“We are very alarmed,” Rossetti said. “When you make reductions, it impacts sales.”

Those who rely on the MacDill commissary had a taste of what life is like without it during the more than two-week government shutdown in October.

“The average grocery bill at our commissary is 30 percent less” than off base, said MacDill installation commander Col. Scott DeThomas at a news conference during the shutdown. “Thirty percent less is a lot of money for folks struggling to make ends meet, and that will have a big impact across the base and the community.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

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