WORKTEC worried about possible base closings

By Ed Brock

Todd Miller is one of many who would lose his job if Army Garrison Fort Gillem in Forest Park is closed.

But for Miller, it would be a lot harder to find another job. When he was 15 years old Miller, now 30, lost his left arm in a shotgun accident. He is one of more than 100 contract laborers at the base provided by WORKTEC Work Training and Employment Center in Jonesboro that helps placed disabled people in jobs.

"I have a family of five and this is a job that supports them," Miller said. "It would be very devastating if this job went away."

Fort Gillem and its parent facility Fort McPherson in Atlanta have been included on the Department of Defense's version of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list that was released on May 13. It is now in the hands of a special BRAC Committee to determine what bases will stay on the list and which ones will be saved.

The WORKTEC workers provide custodial and lawn maintenance work at the forts. Miller, for example, cleans floors, a job at which he earns "decent money." He doesn't know what he would do if the fort closed.

"I'd start from scratch, probably," Miller said. "It would be very hard to get another job."

WORKTEC, which operates as part of the Clayton County Public Schools System, has had contracts with the Army for more than 20 years, according to Mark Williams, WORKTEC's contract services director, contracts that generate almost $3 million in revenue annually for the program. Their workers clean three million square feet of office space and cut between 200 and 300 acres of grass to earn that money.

Now WORKTEC administrators like Williams are trying to develop an alternative employment plan for Miller and the others.

"If the forts close we hope the locations will become a commercial contract depending on who takes ownership," Williams said. "Military bases don't close overnight. We have enough time to evaluate our abilities and review how we perform and where."

Williams said WORKTEC is exploring community opportunities outside of federal contracts.

The unemployment rate among disabled people is around 70 percent, but the turnover rate for WORKTEC workers is less than 10 percent, according to Williams. Employment provides independence and self-confidence for disabled people, Williams said, and it decreases the amount of income they must collect from the government.

On June 30 the BRAC Commission will hold a public hearing in Atlanta to hear arguments for saving Forts Gillem and McPherson and the two other Georgia bases on the list, Naval Air Station in Marietta and Navy Supply Corps School in Athens.

"We'll definitely get as many people as we can to go up there," said Angie Watkins, Miller's supervisor.

Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem are home to headquarters for the U.S. Army Forces Command, 3rd U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Command. Scott said Atlanta would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the bases were closed.

Fort McPherson is one of the nation's oldest bases, in use since the 1880s. Combined with Fort Gillem, it is Atlanta's seventh largest employer with a civilian and military payroll of 4,141 people.

Losing the forts could drain about $670 million a year from the local economy, said U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia.