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CPS hits Fort Sam with 1,300 cutoff notices for unpaid bills

Web Posted: 06/15/2006 12:00 AM CDT

Sig Christenson
Express-News Military Writer

As Fort Sam Houston finished celebrating the Army's 231st birthday on Wednesday, soldiers faced the possibility of needing candles for more than just a cake.

In a notably embarrassing moment for one of the nation's oldest and most historic posts, Fort Sam has received 1,300 CPS Energy service termination notices. It's three months behind, with the last bill paid in March.

Commanders were warned to pay a total of $4.2 million by Wednesday or risk losing power "without further notice." Fort Sam, which privatized power three years ago and installed meters at buildings across the 3,010-acre post, was talking with CPS, and both the utility and Army said no cutoff was imminent.

"Who would imagine us not paying our bill?" said Col. Wendy Martinson, Fort Sam's garrison commander. "I worry about it. I can't sleep at night."

Fort Sam has wrestled with financial woes that have dogged 179 posts worldwide. The garrison, which provides services to more than 70 tenant commands, is facing a $26 million budget shortfall this year. It's fired 100 contract workers, frozen hiring, shut off cell phones and BlackBerry devices, turned in leased cars and stopped troops from using government credit cards.

Only Fort Sam commands funded by the Army Installation Management Agency are affected. Brooke Army Medical Center, among others, isn't.

The shortfall is partly due to lengthy congressional and White House wrangling over a $94.5 billion supplemental appropriations bill that will pay for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as hurricane relief.

Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon said civilian and military budget officials in the Pentagon were as much to blame for the mess as Congress.

"If (the Defense Department) is putting together budgets that at this late date in the year do not have enough money to pay electric bills, you have to wonder about just how well they put together their regular budget," he said.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, also chastised the Pentagon.

"It's unfortunate that the Pentagon hasn't been more transparent about what it needs," said Smith, whose district includes Fort Sam.

The Senate is to vote on a revised supplemental bill today following House approval earlier this week. But even if President Bush quickly signs it, Fort Sam's garrison office may not get enough money to cover its shortfall.

Martinson said IMA funding likely will be a temporary fix, and hopes she'll get enough money to pay the light bill and secure phone lines, civilian salaries and dining facilities.

"But there's a whole laundry list of things beyond that that are very important, that may or may not make the list," she said.

Fort Sam's problems are a symptom of bigger woes. IMA is grappling with a $530 million deficit and hasn't decided how to divvy up funds from the supplemental.

IMA spokesman Steve Oertwig said his agency would prioritize funding allocations on the basis of support for troops destined for the war zone, health and safety needs, and civilian payrolls for permanent civilian employees.

At the Pentagon, Army spokesman Lt. Col. William Wiggins couldn't say if Fort Sam, which trains all the service's medics, would be a top priority, but he called medical support "critical to operations."

Martinson said she doubted that employees would be furloughed, but expects to see longer lines for such things as getting identification cards. Other changes are coming, and the funding cuts are likely to hurt troops and families — including those returning from war.

"We're providing services for soldiers who have come back and have been injured, and I'm not talking about the health care services — they're getting their health care — but their community-type services, and those are in jeopardy," she said.

CPS is talking on a daily basis with Fort Sam officials. Retail energy director John Saenz called Fort Sam a "key account in CPS' customer lineup."

The shutoff notices were automatically kicked out of CPS' computer and are issued to anyone who's late in paying.

But customer services director Sylvia Arnold said the post isn't a high risk for nonpayment, and that the utility would work to resolve the outstanding debt — as it does with anyone who contacts CPS.

She described Fort Sam as important to the utility and community.

Post spokesman Phil Reidinger said CPS understands "our predicament" and is working with Fort Sam until the supplemental budget comes through.

"From my vantage point, they know we're not going anywhere," he said. "We're not going to skip town."