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Saving Money, Key to Preserving Commissary Benefit

By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., May 23, 1996 – Force reductions and base closures have shut the doors of nearly 100 commissaries, but the store benefit continue to play a crucial role in maintaining a high quality of life for service members and their families, said the commissary chief.

Despite scrutiny from Congress about the stores' value to the military and their cost to the American taxpayer, the Defense Commissary Agency continues fighting to preserve the longstanding military benefit, said Army Maj. Gen. Richard E. Beale Jr., agency director since November 1992. Due to leave in September, Beale spoke of the changes, hardships and the future of the commissary.

"The biggest frustration I've had is the amount of time I've had to devote to convincing critics of the importance of the commissary benefit," said Beale. The issue, he said, is not whether the nation can afford the commissary benefit, but whether it can afford not to have it.

He said agency personnel, burdened with the same frustration, work hard to protect the commissary benefit a point he appreciates both as their chief and as a customer.

"They [agency workers] have done some tremendous things under tremendous pressure over the last three years, not knowing from month to month or year to year whether they were even going to have jobs," said Beale. "They have literally pulled the bacon out of the fire for the service members in preserving the benefit."

Beale said commissary privileges are an integral part of the military's compensation package, dating back to 1866. "It's an expected service," he said. "In every study and survey we've done, it would actually cost the taxpayer more to pay the service member to shop 'downtown' than to fund the commissary system."

In its first four years, Beale said, the agency saved taxpayers $361.7 million. He said the agency looks at every possible way it can save money and still provide quality service. Beale said the agency is succeeding, but must continue to change to keep the commissary benefit.

Being named a performancebased organization is one of those changes. In March , DoD announced the Defense Commissary Agency would be one of eight federal agencies testing an administrative program developed 15 years ago in the British Commonwealth nations. The program focuses on waiving or eliminating bureaucratic rules to ease hiring practices and fiscal management restraints.

This program would allow store managers to reduce administrative costs and pass the savings to customer service. Beale said this program should be in place by the middle of fiscal 1997, pending waiver approval by federal personnel and acquisition policy makers.

While the agency experiments with operating rules, Beale said it continues to draw down, consolidate and renovate existing stores. When DoD consolidated all service commissary systems in 1992, Beale said, the agency inherited 411 stores. There are now 312.

Beale said many of store closings were in Europe part of the conventional forces in Europe realignment. By working with the U.S. European Command, the agency had little trouble consolidating facilities that support service members at the remaining U.S. bases in Europe.

However, Beale admitted, it's been tougher to close and to consolidate stores in the United States. One problem continues to be small, inefficient stores serving small communities. "We wanted to close 20 stores, but the realities only allowed us to close three," said Beale. "We are now trying to make those stores more efficient and are reviewing efforts to consolidate storelevel management support centers."

Meanwhile, Beale said the agency would close stores only when called for by the remaining Base Closure and Realignment Commission timetables and DoD policy for retaining commissaries on closed installations, then shift business to more modern facilities at other nearby bases. Since 1992, the agency has built 51 new facilities and renovated 31 others. This has made the transition easier for those who shopped at older facilities.

"The people who shopped at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., merely shifted to Luke [Air Force Base], and we see that happening in other areas where there are many commissaries available," he said. A new commissary at Fort Myer, Va., is serving patrons who once shopped at nearby closed Cameron Station in Alexandria, Va., and at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.

Shoppers living near military base concentrations may have longer drives to get to another store in a metropolitan area. The agency still operates seven stores where base closure would have left significant active duty military populations with no commissary, Beale said. DoD policy now states the need for a commissary may survive base closure actions.

"It's been our biggest challenge on BRAC," he said. "It's my decision that we will continue to operate stores at lower levels of operating hours and staffing . It is not right to close stores where we have a large amount of active duty forces who have stayed behind in those communities."

The drawdown has had another effect a decrease in the agency's uniformed members. With emphasis toward placing service members in tactical units, all but 19 of the agency's 1993 high of 1,900 military slots are converting into civilian positions by the end of this fiscal year, Beale said. While some shoppers like dealing with military at their local commissaries, the personnel costs are 33 percent less for a comparable DoD civilian employee, he noted.

Of the 19 remaining military slots, Beale said 10 will remain at the Fort Lee headquarters. Seven service members are veterinarians who handle commissary food inspections. The other two are agency liaisons an Air Force chief master sergeant in Europe and a Navy master chief petty officer in the Pacific.

Beale also defended the switch to a civilianrun agency, saying the current staff is well able to support service members' needs. "We have brought in a number of people [from the four services] over the years who have quite a bit of expertise in the management of grocery chains," he said. "You don't necessarily have to bring in somebody from the outside."

When Beale leaves the agency this fall, he said he will leave satisfied in the commissary's effort to help service members. "It's been most rewarding," he said. "You know that what you do touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of service members and their families all around the world."

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