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Commissary hours would be cut under draft budget proposal

January 23, 2015 (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Trevor Rhynes/Air Force)

Many commissaries would have to cut their hours and days of operation — as much as two days a week, in some cases — under a draft Defense Department budget document that details proposed reductions in the commissary budget for fiscal 2016.

The draft document obtained by Military Times presents various options for the Defense Commissary Agency to meet a DoD mandate to come up with $322 million in annual savings — nearly one-fourth of DeCA's annual baseline budget of $1.4 billion.

Those options are under discussion as defense officials work to finalize their fiscal 2016 budget request to Congress, scheduled to be sent to Capitol Hill in early February. Because plans are still in flux and no final decisions have been made, a A DoD spokesman declined to comment. One source said discussions are already ongoing about changes to some of the commissary proposals outlined in the document.

If last year is any indication, lawmakers may not be receptive to suggestions about cutting the commissary budget to such a severe degree. In their fiscal 2015 budget request, DoD proposed cutting $200 million in DeCA funding, the first phase of a proposed three-year plan to slash the DeCA budget by $1 billion. In the end, lawmakers restored that $200 million to the budget.

In the new draft plan for 2016, DeCA outlines $183 million in operating costs cuts, to include paring back the number of employees per store by an average of six, down to 45. The 241 commissaries in the system now average 51 employees per store.

Days of operation would be reduced at 183 stores, according to the draft. In one example provided, the commissary at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base Hawaii would have its weekly operating days and hours reduced from seven days and 60 hours per week to five days and 49 hours per week. According to the draft, if the services wanted to add more operating hours for a particular base outside the model DeCA would use, they would have to provide funding out of their own budgets to cover the costs.

The draft document says the proposed reductions in operating hours would save more than $29 million, while proposed cuts in days of operation would save $58 million.But in addition to the $183 million DeCA might save with these and other reductions, more drastic moves would be required for DeCA to achieve the remaining $139 million in savings requested by defense officials — involving fundamental changes to the law that applies to commissaries.

In that regard, one of the subtlest but most far-reaching changes would remove from law the longstanding requirement that commissary items be sold "at reduced cost." Over the years, the commissaries have consistently touted the fact that patrons save an average of 30 percent compared to off-base grocery stores.

According to an analysis of the legislative proposals, removing those three words — "at reduced cost" — from the law would be a recognition that "the commissary of the future will exist like a partially appropriated funded version of an exchange, rather than as an element of compensation."

Instead, items would be priced at levels "sufficient to finance operating expenses" of the stores. Under current law, taxpayer funds cover operating expenses so that commissary items can be sold at lower cost.

The proposals already are raising alarms in some quarters.

"This is a death knell for commissaries," said Tom Gordy, president of the Armed Forces Marketing Council, when asked about the proposals. He said the plan would be a "death knell" for the commissary benefit as as generations of troops have known it.

"If it moves forward, it's an indication that DoD is saying, 'We'll no longer provide this benefit — it's a business.' This is not good for military families," Gordy said.

Another legislative change proposed in the draft document would allow commissaries to sell beer and wine — everything that a commercial supermarket sells, except for distilled spirits.

A number of other proposals in the draft document also would increase costs to customers if they become law, down to a 10-cent charge for each paper or plastic bag that a customer uses. Commissaries have been encouraging customers to bring reusable bags to the stores for years, and the stores sell such bags as well.

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