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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Ten years later, defending against BRAC still top priority for state Office of Military Affairs

    "We close New London down, we will never get it back," Anthony J. Principi, then chairman of the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission told The Day in August 2005 after the commission overturned the Pentagon's May 13, 2005 recommendation to close the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

    In the days and weeks that followed, much of the credit was given to members of the local Subase Realignment Coalition, who volunteered countless hours to develop a strong case to save the base.

    While the community, led by individuals like local businessman Norbert V. "Bud" Fay, who was among the most visible leader of the fight, and retired Navy captain John Markowicz, chairman of the coalition, were the first defenders, the state realized that it needed to take on future fights.

    Once the danger had passed, state officials recognized they needed an entity to take on the job, full-time, of defending the base against another BRAC round.

    "The idea was that the state of Connecticut could no longer afford to ignore the fact that the submarine base in Groton had a vital impact on our communities in southeastern Connecticut, the economy of those communities and the economy of the state," Rob Simmons, a Republican who was serving as Connecticut's congressman for the Second Congressional District during the 2005 BRAC round, said by phone last week.

    As Jodi Rell, Connecticut's governor at the time, put it recently, the state needed someone "to keep us apprised of what was going on in D.C. What was the scuttlebutt? What was the next shoe to drop, if you will, and who is the best person to handle that kind of news and keep the state and governor's office informed on our options and how to proceed?"

    Justin Bernier, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who served as Simmons' chief legislative aide, was the first to be appointed to the helm of the Office of Military Affairs, which was created by law in 2007.

    The office was established within the state Department of Economic and Community Development for administrative purposes, with the goal of coordinating efforts to prevent the closure or downsizing of the sub base.

    It was also meant to serve as a liaison to local and state officials on defense and military issues as those played out in Washington.

    In 2009, Bernier resigned to run for Congress, and Gov. Rell appointed Bob Ross, the office's current executive director.

    Rell said by phone last week from her home in Brookfield that she still remembers when she and other officials went to Boston to make their presentation to the commission. One member of the commission, she said, noted afterward that it was one of the best presentations the commission had ever heard.

    "We didn't just mumble a bunch of words ... we were front and center as far as getting the facts and figures," she said, noting that the job of doing that work and getting together those facts and figures became the responsibility of the executive director of the Office of Military Affairs.

    Ross has now been that person for six years. As he put it, the state is paying him for his Rolodex. Ross' existing network at the Pentagon, where he served as a Navy spokesman from 1991 to 1992, allows him, he said, "to pick up the phone and get things done."

    He might need to rely on the Rolodex with another BRAC round forecasted for 2017. Meanwhile, a new role has emerged for the office, as an advocate for the state's active duty service members and their families.

    Shortly after Ross, a former first selectman in Salem who still serves on the board of selectman, started his job with the state, many people came to him with good ideas for how to use the $40 million that had been set aside by the Connecticut General Assembly in 2007 for submarine base infrastructure improvements.

    "I didn't want to empty the checkbook on my first day," Ross joked recently.

    In 2009, Connecticut approached the Navy and the Department of Defense about negotiating an agreement that allowed state funding for infrastructure projects on a military base, excluding National Guard bases.

    Other states have copied Connecticut's program by authorizing state funding for on-base infrastructure improvements, according to Ross, but he said that to his knowledge no other state has completed a project using this type of arrangement.

    Five projects at the Groton base have been completed so far, with a sixth to be completed this summer. Two other projects were approved by the state's Bond Commission in May.

    The state has worked with base officials to demolish 12 percent of its infrastructure, such as archaic buildings that weren't energy efficient and not used properly, Ross said.

    Other projects funded through the $40 million investment program include infrastructure projects for operations and training, encroachment mitigation, public safety and energy efficient projects.

    DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith said under Ross' and Malloy's leadership, a lot has been done to "help the sub base invest appropriately" in order for the base to "make deeper roots in Connecticut, and make it harder for the military to consider closing the base."

    The closest the state came to another BRAC round under Ross' tenure was in 2011 when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the case for another round. But it became clear that was unlikely, Ross said, because Panetta didn't put any money in the budget for it.

    Ross was recently appointed to the board of directors of the Association of Defense Communities.

    The national organization features Ross' counterparts across the country, industry, community and government officials. It has become much more influential in shaping defense policy, according to Ross, who said his post on the board will put him "in a position to help shape that conversation."

    "The collective perception in the room" at a recent meeting of the ADC, Ross said, was that there is a "shift in the mood of Congress toward potentially approving another BRAC round as early as 2017," which, if approved, would occur in 2019.

    Ross feels prepared to defend the base, if that were to happen, as he said the base has "history, heritage and national significance" and "synergy that can't be duplicated."

    Submarine builder Electric Boat is just down the river from the base and the two rely heavily on each other.

    The Office of Military Affairs has also now taken on a greater advocacy role for Connecticut's active duty service members and their families.

    Members of the Connecticut National Guard have Maj. Gen. Thad Martin, adjutant general, and veterans have the Commissioner of Veterans' Affairs, but, Ross said, there wasn't really anyone to fill the advocacy role for the state's active duty military.

    Ross helped to increase opportunities and access to area magnet schools for transitioning military families.

    Often military families move in the summer to mitigate disruption, he explained, and they would miss the deadline for the lottery for the magnet schools. He worked with the superintendents of the magnet schools to hold back a number of seats for a second lottery.

    During the 2015 session of the Connecticut General Assembly, Ross drafted language updating the founding legislation for the office to leave it better shape than he found it, he said, though he was clear he has no plans to leave his post.

    He hailed the office as a model of efficiency in government, noting he is the only employee and the office runs on a budget of $250,000 a year.

    As a result of the updated language, future executive directors will have to be field grade or senior officers, not just a former officer, within a branch of the armed forces. He also tweaked some language around the use of consultants rather than lobbyists.

    The updated legislation was signed by the governor on June 19.

    j.bergman@theday.com

    Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

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