About this time last year, local officials were up in arms over the fate of about 700 contract employees at Red River Army Depot, west of Texarkana.
While the new president, Donald Trump, seemed pro-defense, he also seemed inclined to put his fingerprints on everything and immediately began an aggressive campaign of evaluating military effectiveness. This included a freeze on federal hiring of civilian employees. Contract employees at Red River initially came in the line of fire.
A good portion of RRAD's labor pool is contracted. Those with expiring contracts were at risk.
This had the potential to affect the depot's workforce, impede mission demands and devastate the local economy.
Local officials who always take any threat to RRAD seriously began to scramble, initiating a lobbying effort aimed at key elected and military officials in Washington on the implications of freezing these positions. They were not alone in their efforts, as other communities rallied to make similar points.
Within a few weeks, the sweeping decree was put in perspective, reduced in scope and marched forward at a more sensible cadence. The jobs in Texarkana were safe—at least for the moment.
That's how it often is with military support outposts. They are affected by war and peace, shifting politics, shifting alliances, shifting strategies, good economies and bad. Those officials who strive to protect them—and local interests—must remain forever vigilant.
It's a never-ending battle, but fortunately, the work that is done at Red River Army Depot is relevant, cost-effective and not that difficult to defend.
A year later, local officials are cautiously optimistic but not totally free of worry.
Last week, the House and Senate, after a brief government shutdown, passed a budget that established spending for 2018 and 2019. Military spending levels were set at $700 billion—a major increase.
Until the impasse was resolved, there was still a great deal of uncertainty.
"As a working capital depot, RRAD needs military 'customers' to keep a steady workload. Those military 'customers' need money in a budget for repairing the vehicles," said Jerry Sparks, economic development director for Texarkana, Texas, and a fervent depot defender. "The process doesn't work well using continuing resolutions for funding."
Yet even with the question of the budget behind them, there are still challenges. Military needs are always shifting.
"If workload is reduced, RRAD may manage its workforce by reducing the number of contract employees," Sparks said. "Those employees may be called temporary, but most have one-year contracts. Some of those contracts have been renewed for years, but the employee can be released at the expiration of any one-year contract."
Take, for example, the so-called peace dividend. "During peacetime, the need to rebuild vehicles decreases. That means fewer orders for RRAD, and that means a reduced workload," Sparks said.
Over a 30- or 40-year time span, Sparks says the workforce expands and contracts "like a gentle roller coaster."
While the peaks are encouraging, preparing for the valleys or preparing to defend against them is a full-time job. With 4,800 civilian jobs at stake, it is a job local officials take seriously.
While some conditions might be predictable, others are not so much. If funding is not earmarked for rebuilding vehicles, the expectation would be a workforce reduction here. Yet the future is unpredictable, and as one door starts to swing shut slightly, others open.
As such, part of the local lobbying effort is "to help RRAD find new missions or new workload," Sparks said. "That kind of diversification can help reduce the roller coaster effect on employment."
And military readiness is not something that can be turned off and on like a switch—a truth that shouldn't be dismissed casually.
There are wartime needs, peacetime needs and less conspicuous needs that live between those two. And those needs are what Washington seems to conveniently forget from time to time.
"If you close RRAD, Anniston or Barksdale Air Force Base, you can't ramp that operation up to wartime effort in a few months," Sparks said.
So this year won't start like last year, with an outburst of drama, but that doesn't mean there won't be challenges or that Red River Army Depot has a free pass until the next budget battle two years from now.
It does mean we can draw in a deep breath for the moment, then return to the watchful posture that has served this community so well for so long.