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Troop draw down at Fort Drum has become the 800-pound gorilla in the corner

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A report in the Times last week announced in something of a perfunctory way that within the next few years, Fort Drum will lose 2,800 soldiers. That is not counting dependents, the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization was told.

While this news is not a surprise – we were told earlier this year that the Third Brigade Combat Team was being deactivated – it seems that the loss of troops at the post is becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the corner, which we glance at furtively then look quickly away.

But it’s time to discuss the ramifications of troop fluctuations at Fort Drum.

First, let’s not give loss-of-force numbers without at least noting that losing soldiers also means losing civilian population. While many soldiers come here without dependents, many others bring along the family. It is chiefly the need for housing for soldiers with families that has created the giddy build-out of the apartment housing stock in the greater Watertown area. If we were to lose 2,800 soldiers, we could easily lose 4,000 dependents as well.

It is these dependents who are filling the schools, the supermarkets and the mall. It is the dependents upon whom Jefferson County relies for so much sales tax revenue, and who we expect to fill the LeRay and Pamelia and Watertown apartment complexes that have been built, or are being built. When dependents leave as a multiple of the number of soldiers drawn down, our political and economic leaders have to sit up and take notice.

Jefferson County Legislator Scott Gray, R-Watertown, has said repeatedly that the county, and by extension its municipalities, rely far too heavily on sales tax revenues to pay for local government. Sadly, few of his fellow legislators seem to be listening, and no town governments appear to be taking heed. The county is in something of a deficit situation this year because it overestimated sales-tax revenue, and if those revenues continue to stagnate, several towns will feel the pinch as well.

Meanwhile, in the frantic rush to provide rental housing to accommodate Army personnel and their dependents, towns and school districts have been pressed and sometimes reluctantly acceded to grant payment-in-lieu-of-taxes benefits for housing. Housing does not provide jobs. Housing does not produce anything. Housing is far from an ideal use of PILOT benefits. The PILOTs granted for housing to date may really come back to haunt taxing districts if Fort Drum troop losses are sufficient to create a housing glut. That could mean that these properties that have received tax breaks in the first years successfully argue in subsequent years that the income is not there to support the values upon which the PILOTs were negotiated.

No one, however, is projecting what number of soldier losses make the bottom fall out. Ominously, the apartment vacancy rate has risen from 1 percent to 5 percent in recent months, and anecdotally, I am not the first person to remark on the suddenly large number of for-rent signs in the city of Watertown, and out as far as Adams.

And, as the number of soldiers dwindles, the number of post jobs needed to support them will also wane. Fort Drum is a huge, complex economic engine, one upon which over the past 25 years the north country — and especially Jefferson County — has come to rely.

There is no real solution. The forces that set Army force strength are divorced from consideration of the needs of Jefferson County. Decisions on the future of the post rest at least as far away as Washington, D.C., and perhaps as distant as the Middle East or East Africa or Asia or who knows where.

There are things elected and appointed officials can be doing to be ready for any eventuality, however. One is to reduce the dependence on the sales tax as a primary source of municipal revenue. Another is to stop buying new firehouses and town halls and ladder trucks and any number of other hugely expensive municipal trinkets whose need is usually in the eye of the beholder.

Fiscal restraint is never a bad idea for a governmental body, but here, where so much relies on economic forces far beyond our control, it has become a necessity.

Anybody out there listening?

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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