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City leaders testify on base closing needs.

Mayor Peggy Rubach of Mesa, Ariz. urged Congress to reject claims by the administration and act now on legislation to expedite the transfer of closed military bases for reuse by communities:

"You promised cities and towns two years ago that when our bases were shut down, you would help us trasfer them for reuse. Since then we've heard a lot of rhetoric, but we've seen no action, no commitment.

"So please help and help us now. Asking for trust doesn't work any longer."

Rubach was testifying as part of an NLC panel before the House Sub-committee on Military Installations and Facilities and the Environmental Restoration Panel on legislation to speed up the transfer of closed bases to local communities, to allow at least partial transfers of such properties before total environmental cleanup, and to indemnify any municipal or private persons taking over such bases for reuse.

Rep. Richard Ray (D-Ga.), the Chairman of the Environmental Restoration Panel, a former councilmember and mayor, and a former president of the Georgia Municipal Assoication, is the author of two of the bills before Congress, HR 4024 and 4025, to help communities convert bases more quickly and without assuming environmental liabilities.

The NLC panel follwed a panel made up of witness from the U.S. Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Justice Department. The three federal agencies told Congress that no legislation was necessary to expedite economic conversion and reuse of the closed military bases. They urged that the single most critical action was for prompt appropriation of nearly $200 million to begin cleaning up environmental damage at closed bases in cities and towns.

Rubach was joined by John Maxwell, councilmember from Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Ann Klinger, supervisor from Merced County, Calif. in opposing the administration claims.

Maxwell told the joint hearing that unless Congress acted quickly to put into law a comprehensive agreement, the administration would continue dragging its foot. He said Congress needed to act immediately to make available the environmental funds it had promised but refused to pass so that cities could get on with their jobs of reuse planning and economic conversion.

Klinger made the committees aware of how urgent the issue is for communities. Testifying on behalf of a joint power authority representing her county and two cities, Klinger warned that the closure of Castle Air Force base would send the unemployment rate in those communities up to 23 percent at the same time the community realized reductions in assessed property values. Moreover, under current federal laws, she said that it could be 25 years before the air force base property could be transferred--it is expected to take that long for the federal EPA to certify that the entire property is free of any contamination.

Klinger also warned that in her community and may others while some contamination is known, some contamination will only be learned about years from now. Unless any potential purchasors or owners of that property are indemnified, they will be reluctant to make any bids for economic conversion and reuse of these properties.

The Ray bill

Congress Ray's bill is specifically directed at eliminating several existing and potential problems that are delaying reuse closed bases. His bill would:

[section] permit the sale of land before all environmental cleanup was finished, provided the cleanup had commenced, the deed of sale assured access for any further cleanup activities, and the federal government agreed to continue diligent cleanup until complete;

[Section] would clarify that the federal government can subdivide property for sale or lease--including property on the Superfund priorities list--so that clean and safe parcels could be reused; and

[section] would require the Defense Department to indemnify local governments and potential investors from any future liability arising from the defense waste.

Administration Reaction

The administration witnesses admitted to Chairperson Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) that before seeing Rep. Ray's bills, they did not know they had legal authority to parcel properties, to sell before entire cleanup, or to indemnify. They said they had since reached agreement amongst themselves that they could interpret the law to do all three. They agreed all three steps were critical to communities. But they refused to endorse enacting the steps into law and refused to answer the panel's questions as to whether they would indemnify municipalities on a discretionary basis or not, or accept the same level of liability as current federal law applies to cities and towns.

A witness for business executives called the administration position a "lose-lose" proposition for American communities. He said any base closing decision affecting a community is a huge economic hit. But he said a refusal to adopt these steps into law would mean that the first lawsuit filed would shut down the process until the federal courts determined whether they shared the same interpretation of the law.

Rubach went further. She said that the problem with the informal agreement between the three federal agencies is that if any player changes in any of the three agencies at any level, all of those involved in planning and implementing at the local level have to start over - perhaps with a whole new set of ground rules.

Rubach, Klinger and Maxwell urged Congress to move. They offered the support of local officials. And they reminded Congress that the process of closing more bases will be far more difficult unless the job is done right now.
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Author:Shafroth, Frank
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:May 4, 1992
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