ECN CoverE&C Commissary News

Editorial Comment — January 2015


Where's the funding?

Congress and some in military resale community leadership must keep their moral compasses close at hand when two trainloads of legislative proposals already headed down the track pull into the station — one in the Pentagon’s portion of the President’s FY 2016 budget proposal, and the other in the imminent Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) report.

As much as we all might hope for some innovative solutions that will help the Pentagon direct more of its fiscal resources to the pointy end of the spear, Department of Defense (DoD) proposals that surfaced and were rejected last year lead us to expect more of the same, if not worse, in the upcoming legislative cycle.

What may these contain? How about “cost recovery” marked-up commissary pricing, reduced days and hours, reductions in force (RIF) both above and below store level, commissary category expansion into beer and wine that diverts dollars away from exchanges and MWR, elimination of the board of directors, elimination of NEXMarts and BXMarts, several commissary closures, cuts to second destination transportation (SDT) … and ultimately, DeCA funding cuts that shift the $1-billion cost of CONUS commissaries entirely on to servicemembers, retirees and their families.

Mandating “self-supporting” commissaries along these lines, however, is nothing but a sham. The net effect of the proposals we expect to resurface — with possibly a few new bells and whistles — will be the patrons paying for the cost of operating commissaries at every turn, if this type of legislative packet is allowed to slip through.

Haven’t servicemembers and their families sacrificed enough? Slashing away like this at their benefits — even if only through proposals, heaven forbid actual law — sends an extremely poor message to those servicemembers DoD would hope to retain, and their children, many of whom the military quietly count on to become the force of the future.

We’re not opposed to attempts at innovation, but subtracting “at-cost” pricing from DeCA cuts away at the heart of the commissary concept — it’s equivalent to preserving the physical store but not the benefit.

Commissaries have been drastically cut since DeCA’s inception, and any deeper “efficiencies” need to be approached with extreme caution, or the entire system and its industrial base could quite literally tumble into a death spiral. Break them now and the damage will cost more to fix than any imagined savings. It’s like maintaining a car — ignore the engine warning light, and the trip to the service bay will be 10 times more expensive.

Harm the exchanges’ business models and funding for MWR could easily be decimated, and on-base services will suffer, ultimately hurting the servicemembers and families that use them.

Very few in this industry would be fooled by unwarranted cuts to things such as overseas transportation. This was provided for by Congress in its wisdom to equalize the costs for American goods to servicemembers overseas. SDT is not a cost that should be passed back through sleight of hand to the military community.

It is not for us to say what is necessary for the five-sided building and what isn’t; but one thing is clear: this nation needs to retain military personnel who can preserve its security. But the pressure is in the opposite direction; defense has been backed against the wall and is showing signs of strain in many areas, and is so desperate for fiscal nutrition that it is looking to eat its own, commissaries and exchanges included.

So, go find other areas to cut. Congress cannot and should not look to the troops and their families as a resource to recoup the cost of their own benefits. It makes no sense to claim to put money in one of their pockets only to take it from another; and to send troops overseas and then demand that they pay more for a soda because you sent them there does no honor to the sacrifice they make on the country’s behalf.

It’s time to look elsewhere than the military family’s wallet for funding the Department of Defense.

Although the Congress and DoD have much larger and more urgent concerns, and although the commissary budget is but a tiny fraction — one four-hundredth or 0.25 percent — of the defense budget, it is an area where care and attention is key, because although small, it is one of the most significant components of servicemember morale and personnel and military family sustainability. Presenting these troops and families with a $1-billion grocery bill in 2017 is not the solution to DoD’s budget woes; instead it would be tantamount to the department digging itself a deeper hole.

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