Defense officials have proposed cutting about $200 million from the commissary operating budget, Military Times has learned. But it is not clear whether that will affect the operations of commissary stores.

In the Defense Department budget for fiscal 2017 being submitted to Congress on Tuesday, officials call for $1.2 billion to operate the 240 commissary stores worldwide in fiscal 2017, down from the $1.4 billion appropriated by Congress to operate the stores in the current fiscal year.

Officials made a similar proposal in 2015, to reduce the commissary budget to $1.15 billion, which would have required cutting operating days and hours at most commissaries. But lawmakers instead added $281 million for a total operating budget of $1.44 billion.

The DoD fiscal 2017 budget request decrease of about $200 million is driven by "the lower commissary operating support request," according to budget documents obtained by Military Times.

One source familiar with commissary operations said the $200 million reduction may be the result of various savings in operating costs that the Defense Commissary Agency has implemented. One example is the change in the way the commissary agency provides produce to stores in the Pacific, reportedly saving more than $40 million a year.

"As long as it's not affecting the benefit and they've made some efficiencies that reduce the [amount of taxpayer dollars required], we wouldn't have any problem. But we'd like to see where the money is coming from," said the source.

Lawmakers also gave DoD leeway this year to test proposals for saving money in commissary operations while delivering the same savings and same benefit. DoD is considering options for pilot programs.

Those taxpayer dollars, which cover commissary operating costs, enable the stores to sell groceries at cost, giving military patrons an average of about 30 percent savings over civilian stores outside the gates. Lawmakers were concerned that focusing on cutting taxpayer dollars would directly result in a cut to the commissary benefit — the savings customers enjoy.

Defense officials will "look for efficiencies first and let efficiencies drive the budget, rather than the other way around," said Peter Levine, DoD's deputy chief management officer, in an Oct. 27 speech. Levine is leading the efforts to find taxpayer savings in DoD's resale operations. One proposal explored was the merger or consolidation of the commissary and exchange systems, but Levine said officials determined that is not necessary. "We believe we can get efficiencies without consolidation," Levine said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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