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County reacts to base closure talk

"When there's talk about military base closures, Whidbey Island officials get nervous.They're nervous again.Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to open another round of base closures, as requested by military leaders. Whidbey Island officials have already reacted.Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell, R-Oak Harbor, told his fellow commissioners Monday that he returned Saturday night from a trip to Washington, D.C. to remind military brass of the importance of NAS Whidbey. The trip was paid for with county funds. Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen also made the trip, with her city paying the tab.McDowell returned optimistic that this time, NAS Whidbey with its 8,000 military jobs and 1,200 civilian jobs won't be on the chopping block. It was back in 1991, and narrowly escaped the axe after an all-out effort by Oak Harbor and county leaders to save the base.McDowell said the elimination of NAS Whidbey would be crippling to the entire county's economy, not just North Whidbey's. Effects would be felt on Camano Island and South Whidbey as well. Property values would at least temporarily deflate on North Whidbey, resulting in higher property taxes elsewhere. County sales tax revenues would likely plunge. Everybody's impacted, McDowell said.McDowell has made annual pilgrimages to the nation's capital since 1991. A retired Navy captain, he enjoys rubbing ribbons with those in the Pentagon. During last week's trip, he met with acting Secretary of Defense Robin Pierie and a variety of admirals, including Admiral Seely and Admiral Bull.The admirals were very positive about NAS Whidbey, McDowell said. They knew Whidbey this time.McDowell attributed the 1991 base closure decision to lack of knowledge in the other Washington. They thought it was an old World War II base, he chuckled. In fact, due to major upgrades in the 1980s and 1990s, the facilities at NAS Whidbey are the most modern in the Navy, McDowell said.NAS Whidbey with its A-6 jets is also protected because of its importance as an electronics warfare base. The Air Force no longer has something similar, having eliminated its F-111 planes. Now, Air Force crews train at Whidbey.Electronic warfare put us on the map, McDowell said. They all recognize the need for jamming. It's a national asset, it's for everybody.Due to these factors, plus Whidbey Island's celebrated lifestyle, McDowell feels NAS Whidbey is safe from possible closure. I'm as confident as I can be based on the input of the Secretary of Navy on down, he said. However, he noted, there is also competition for those NAS Whidbey jobs, and other states would like to have them.Sen. McCain's base closure bill may never see the light of day. It calls for base closure rounds in 2003 and 2005, but is opposed by such influential senators as John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "

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