Project to unite military bases

Planning has begun to merge the small towns of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base into a small city known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Services common to any city, such as fire and police protection, garbage pickup and utilities, that each installation now provides separately would be combined under the Department of Defense's "joint basing" initiative that passed into law in 2005 through the base realignment and closure process.

The aim is to save money by reducing duplication of these services on installations that share a fence line or are close to each other. The Pentagon has identified 11 other "joint basing" sites across the country. The change should not affect the war-fighting missions at the individual installations.

This transition occurs as both the Army and Air Force undergo major change while resources are tight and the tempo of military operations is high.

On Oct. 1, Joint Base Lewis--McChord will commence initial operations, and Col. Cynthia Murphy, Fort Lewis' garrison commander, will effectively become city manager of this unified community as joint base commander.

Then the project really kicks into high gear.

"If this is a marathon, we're in mile one. We really are," said Jack Murphy, a project consultant. "We're just kind of stretching right now."

Through the summer, working groups will identify common services in 11 areas and determine if it makes sense to merge them.

Officials then will determine how best to deliver the service jointly and sign agreements that outline the respective responsibilities of the Army and Air Force.

Fort Lewis and McChord have two years to implement those agreements from the Oct. 1 transition date, although Murphy said that timeline could shift. Among the first services to merge will be the fire departments. The Fort Lewis fire chief couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Afterward, the Department of Defense and service branches will evaluate the initiative before an independent examination determines whether joint basing could serve as a model for other installations. The local installations' merger into Joint Base Lewis-McChord must be complete by 2011.

Federal lawmakers have expressed concerns about job losses at one of the Puget Sound's biggest economic engines. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, whose congressional district includes Fort Lewis, wasn't available for comment Friday.

Murphy acknowledged there could be job losses but said the military is making every effort to retain quality employees. Officials are looking at relaxing Department of Defense regulations so the Army could hire Air Force civilian workers for a period, he said.

"In the long run, will we probably have some balance in the work force? Absolutely - just like every other organization out there that goes through some kind of efficiency process. But, right now, the challenge is retaining the right workers and coming up with policies and procedures that allow us to do that."

A representative of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1504, which represents workers at Fort Lewis, declined to comment on joint basing's impact on its union members.

Such a major change will create anxiety for those who live on both installations, Murphy acknowledged.

"If the families on Lewis and McChord don't see any change and if, in fact, they see an improvement in their quality of life and their missions are *uninterrupted, we've been successful," he said. Airmen leave today

One-hundred McChord Air Force Base airmen will say goodbye to families and loved ones today as they depart for posts throughout Europe, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Read more this afternoon at www.theolympian.com or in Sunday's Olympian.

*Correction: this sentence originally and in print read: "... their missions are interrupted, we've been successful," she said."the word "interrupted" was corrected to "uninterrupted", and "she said" was corrected to "he said".