The Mississippi National Guard confirmed late Wednesday that at least four armories will be shuttered because of cuts to the state budget. Mississippi Today reported earlier that closings were imminent.
The armories, which will be closed by Oct. 23, are in Lumberton, Nettleton, Grenada and Mendenhall. All National Guard personnel will keep their jobs and be reassigned to nearby facilities.
“This plan allows for the Mississippi Army National Guard to strengthen our force and communities, and save precious financial resources at the same time,” Gen. Augustus Collins of the Mississippi National Guard said in a statement.
“They will also save approximately $130,000 in annual maintenance and utility costs and allow our partner communities to repurpose their facilities for other uses,” he said.
Gov. Phil Bryant said these armories are closing because they’re not being fully utilized.
“This is the first of many steps state agencies will take to achieve efficiencies that do not result in the loss of services. I expect other executive agencies to report additional cost-saving measures before the next legislative session,” Bryant said in a statement.
The mayors of Grenada and Mendenhall told Mississippi Today that Gen. Collins had met with them in recent weeks to discuss the possibility of their armories closing.
“He (Collins) told me something would change, it would happen pretty quick and wanted to talk to me before the word started getting out,” Mendenhall Mayor Todd Booth said. “It sounded like they had pretty much made their mind up that that’s what they were going to do.”
Collins is set to retire at the end of the month.
Lee Smithson, who served as Director of Military Support for the state National Guard before retiring on May 31, said he worked closely with Gen. Collins for two years to determine which armories would be closed. He said they had been looking at a list of 13 armories. All four armories set to close were on that original list.
“I was very familiar with the issues on closing those armories before I left the guard,” Smithson said. “We knew that fiscally the guard could not keep all of the armories open, so Gen. Collins and his staff did an excellent job coming up with good criteria for closing those armories.”
The National Guard requested $11 million in funds from the Legislature for fiscal year 2017, but received $7.9 million, 4 percent less than they received in 2016. Mayor Booth said that in their conversation, Gen. Collins told him that a portion of the cut funds would have gone towards maintenance and repairs.
“He (Collins) said there (was a) $300,000 shortfall in the budget … and that was in their maintenance department,” Booth said. “And with that cut they could not keep those armories open.”
According to the 2017 Legislative Budget Report, the National Guard asked for $1 million for “armory repair and maintenance.” The Legislative Budget Office recommended they be appropriated no funds in that area.
“This is one of the many, many examples of the problems with the budget that was passed, said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “To this day, the people who passed it cannot explain it.”
Mississippi could be following in the footsteps of another state. Last year, Alabama closed 21 National Guard armories after cutting $83 million dollars from its general fund. Last week, Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch said the state is now $135 million in debt.
In a press release, the Mississippi National Guard said the Federal Budget Control Act of 2011, which required a nationwide drawdown of military forces, also contributed to the closures.
Rep. Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, said he expects to see other cuts to state services in the next few months.
“From what I’m told it appears that they have 15 other (National Guard armory) closures anticipated over the state. But it’s not unique just to (the National Guard) budget,” Horan said.
The National Guard uses its 83 state armories for recruitment and to train guard units. They also store emergency supplies for use when responding to catastrophic events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes.
“People don’t realize when it comes to tornadoes and emergencies and power outages, it’s critical to not just Grenada but the surrounding counties to have the armory here,” Horan said. “It’s needed more than people realize. They assist in a lot of things, a lot of civil service things. Nobody wants to lose it.”
Smithson, who is currently executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, agreed that the National Guard armories are an essential part of emergency response. But he said the closures would not affect MEMA’s reaction to natural disasters.
“We’re always working closely with the National Guard to be prepared. Obviously, it will slow the response in a community that used to have a guard and now doesn’t, but it’s not a life-safety issue,” Smithson said.
Among the criteria that Smithson said Gen. Collins used to decide which armories should be closed were the age and condition of each building, including the costs of maintenance and upkeep. They also looked at demographics and where National Guard units were stationed. Areas that had lost population were targeted. He said Gen. Collins’s goal had been to close the ones that had the least economic impact on their communities.
“What Gen. Collins had directed his staff to do was look at every armory across the state and see which ones we could sustain,” Smithson said. “I don’t think it would surprise me to hear that there would be more (closings). But any closings they do would be because Gen. Collins would have no alternatives. The more soldiers you have, the better off the community is.”
The four armories that are closing are located in rural areas. But according to Horan, the loss of economic activity and resources attached to the armories hits these small cities particularly hard. Eighty National Guard members train in Grenada each month, Horan said, and they spend money in the city.
“There’s no reason why they should have done it in rural areas first. Closures could have gone to more populated areas where they have easy access to other services,” Horan said. “We’re kind of stuck out here. We don’t have the support, the emergency services, that some of the armories in the state have. Like take the Coast, take Madison County, they have Hinds right nearby. It doesn’t make sense that they’re doing it this way.”
Mayor Billy Collins said he’s worried the armory’s closure could mean a loss of other services in the Grenada region.
“You never know when the federal government might say, ‘Let’s close Camp McCain.’ So we’d lose the armory, then somewhere down the road lose Camp McCain. We’d have nothing in the form of military facilities,” Collins said. “I didn’t realize until after they left that day, I went over and did a tour. We have so much emergency equipment in case of any kind of disaster. They’d be able to react quickly without us having to send on to Greenwood or Winona.”