The Defense Department is cracking down on all the military services for failing to fully fund their morale, welfare and recreation programs, with each branch falling short of DoD budget requirements. 

The services must pay for a certain percentage of some MWR programs using taxpayer money, a rule that would guarantee a minimum level of MWR support and "prevent Service members and their families from bearing costs that should be borne with [taxpayer funding]," Todd Weiler, assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in memos sent in September to service officials.  

"These standards are not optional and are not subject to Military Department waiver," Weiler wrote.

The Army memo also asked Army Secretary Eric Fanning to delay plans for a $105 million cut to the service's MWR funds, or about 23 percent of the MWR budget. Fanning has since put a hold on the cuts until Army officials have completed a thorough analysis, expected to be finished later this year.

Weiler is meeting with service officials through this week to discuss their issues, he said in an interview with Military Times. He sent out June memos to the services regarding MWR funding that sought feedback by mid-August, a deadline missed by both the Army and Navy. After that miss, plus the Army's planned cut, "I thought we needed to up our communication," Weiler said.

"I've gotten some good feedback from folks really thanking us for looking in to this. I felt good about that. It's important to me. Having been a soldier before, these programs are important," added Weiler, who served as an attack helicopter pilot in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

'I'm not sure families expect much anymore'

It's not clear whether the funding issue is affecting programs on bases. The National Military Family Association has received no complaints from families about cuts to MWR programs, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the organization.

"We've had so many hits because of sequestration, budget cuts, changes to [the Basic Allowance for Housing], lower pay raises ... I'm not sure families expect much anymore," she said. "MWR doesn't make it too high on a lot of families' or leaders' radars, other than child care and youth programs." 

Weiler said he didn't have information on whether any services had underfunded child and youth programs, but would be speaking with service MWR officials about that possibility. He often cites such programs when discussing the importance of MWR efforts in reducing stress on families, he said.

As for a number of other MWR activities and services, "A lot of families use MWR programs because they are there, and would complain if they were gone, but there are too many other worries," Raezer said.

"That's not a good reason to get rid of them, though."

Her group did hear from Army families when the proposed MWR cuts were announced, she said. Such a move, as well as other changes being contemplated to benefits, could result in "irreparable damage to benefits" if leaders aren't careful, Raezer said.

What's underfunded 

Under DoD regulations, programs designated as "Category A" or "mission-sustaining" programs are required to receive 85 percent of their operational funding from taxpayer dollars. Examples include libraries and fitness centers.

Category B efforts, such as child care or youth programs, focus on community support and should receive 65 percent of their operational funding in taxpayer dollars.

Category C programs like golf courses, clubs and recreational lodging generate enough income to pay for most of their operating expenses.

The Marine Corps reported 77 percent of Category A program expenses coming from taxpayer funds in fiscal year 2015, said Bryan Driver, spokesman for the service's Business and Support Services Division. All other services hit or exceeded the 85 percent benchmark.

However, all services missed the Category B threshold, with the Army at 60 percent, Marine Corps at 59 percent, Air Force at 58 percent and Navy Department (Navy and Marine Corps) at 55 percent, according to Weiler's June memos and Driver's figures. Navy-only figures were not provided by the service or DoD. 

In his Sept. 23 memo, Weiler noted that the Air Force has failed to meet the minimum standard of taxpayer funding for Category B programs for four straight years, and that he is "troubled" that the Air Force's plan doesn't include the minimum required funding for the next two fiscal years. 

Service feedback

Air Force officials did not immediately respond to questions. Army officials did not address specific questions regarding program cuts or funding methods.

Marine Corps officials are "committed to the sustainment of valued MWR programs and services in this fiscally constrained environment, while also showing progress towards meeting the DoD [taxpayer funding] standards," Driver said.

With falling end strength and other changes, the Marine Corps began to evaluate its MWR programs and services in fiscal 2015 for the post-wartime environment, Driver said, taking a base-by-base approach to find savings while focusing on the programs that best meet the needs of all Marines and their families.

While the Navy Department didn't meet the DoD funding thresholds for MWR programs, no services have been reduced or eliminated, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Marycate Walsh said, adding that the department is looking to not just maintain, but expand its MWR offerings to sailors and Marines.  

"Despite a challenging budgetary environment, the Department of the Navy has led the Department of Defense in increasing accessibility to child care," Walsh said. "We are renovating and expanding our fitness centers around the world."  

In his Sept. 23 memo to Navy officials, Weiler noted that he understands concerns about the relevance of these funding standards and is willing to discuss them, but those concerns do not allow the department to shirk policy mandates.

Weiler, in the interview, said that as a former businessman, he understands the need to run programs efficiently, and that "if we have cuts because we're doing business smarter and at the local level we're eliminating programs to put money into programs people want more of, those are just smart business decisions. I got that."

"But if it's something more than that," he said, "then we need to address it."

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at .

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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