HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A proposal to privatize military commissaries has been met with a mixture of suspicion and downright opposition from some Utah congressmen and veterans groups.
In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee inserted language into its version of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and several military groups say could lead to the privatization of military commissaries at installations across the world.
As it stands right now, the Senate version of the current NDAA for fiscal year 2016 will authorize the Department of Defense to privatize commissaries at five major installations as part of what essentially amounts to a pilot program, testing the waters of privatization.
The Hill Air Force Base commissary is not among the five in the pilot program, but Hatch says if any commissaries are privatized, it will be nearly impossible for that action to be reversed, even if it negatively affects the military.
Since the initial language in the NDAA was reported, Hatch has co-sponsored an amendment that would halt the privatization effort and instead require the DOD to conduct an assessment for the purpose of reporting to Congress the potential costs and benefits of privatizing commissaries.
“Military service members, veterans, retirees, guardsmen, reservists, and their families rely on commissaries,” Hatch said. “Any change that affects them must be carefully considered.”
According to a Defense Commissary Agency study, commissary patrons save an average of more than 30 percent on their grocery bills. That level of savings amounts to about $4,500 per year for a family of four that regularly shops in a commissary. Customers also receive substantial additional savings through special sales and coupons, according to DeCA.
The fear, among Hatch and several military groups, is that privatization would reduce the savings certain military families are used to.
“Many young service families, particularly those stationed in high cost-of-living urban areas, simply could not make ends meet without the price savings provided by the commissaries,” a DeCA statement says. “Those savings amount to about double the appropriated cost of running the system.”
According DeCA’s annual financial report, which was released in November, military commissaries accumulated $5.6 billion in sales with operating costs of $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2014. DeCA also received $1.4 billion in federal appropriations.
John W. Stroud, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said his organization is against any plan to privatize commissaries.
“Military commissaries are a key quality-of-life benefit to military service members, their families and to retirees,” said Stroud, a retired Air Force first sergeant. “You can sometimes find better deals off base, but nowhere near the overall 30 percent savings that commissaries provide, plus any reduction in customer traffic at the commissary will have a corresponding reduction in customer traffic at the base exchange, which will directly impact morale, welfare and recreation contributions.”
“The VFW is against privatizing military commissaries and we are against the pilot program to test it,” he said. “We want this language stripped from the Senate’s version of the defense bill.”
Dennis Howland, president of the Utah Vietnam Veterans of America, agrees with Stroud.
”Privatization would hurt our military men and women,“ he said. ”It’s always been less expensive for them to shop on base rather than off. It’s a benefit I think they’ve earned.“
On June 3, the White House issued a policy statement that highlighted the administration’s concern with commissary privatization.
The statement cites an independent study that is currently underway on the privatization issue, and the administration requested that any action to privatize the commissaries be delayed until the report is completed and the results are available for consideration.