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Air Force wants ideas for saving money

Apr. 15, 2013 - 12:05PM   |  
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COUNTING COSTS

The Air Force leadership really does want to hear your 2-cents’ worth on how to save money. The Every Dollar Counts Campaign will run May 1-June 1. The service will announce when the website is available to take comments.
SHIPPING MEDICAL RECORDS
“We’re shipping all the medical and dental records each time someone [goes through a permanent change of station],” said Scott, a technical sergeant who asked not to be identified. “If we could just stop that and go back to having the member hand-carry them, that alone is millions of dollars Air Force-wide…we were spending $2,000, $2,500 per month just shipping records in our one facility.”
COMBINE UNITS
“Right now, they’ve kind of got aircraft maintenance and the aircraft operations squadrons totally separate,” said Alan Hickey, a retired master sergeant.
“Twice in my career, I was in squadrons where they actually combined maintenance and operations, and it worked like a champ. I think we kept better care of the folks that were working on the airplanes than when it’s totally separate.”
TWO-YEAR BUDGET CYCLES
“The accounting process and the fiscal laws incentivize spending all your money, otherwise you lose it for next year,” said Brian, a lieutenant colonel in Germany who asked not to be identified.
“What we need to do is take the incentive out for spending all your money, and if they do that by making it a two-year budget — so instead of passing a budget for 2013, they would pass a 2013-2014 budget for example — that would at least cut by 50 percent the amount of money that units spend at the end of each fiscal year because they don’t want to be penalized next year by a cut in their budget for not spending their entire budget.”
SMARTER AIRLIFT
“You have such a large system that’s trying to do so much and it’s very centrally controlled at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., so what happens is the coordination process to move cargo from Point A to Point B involves so many different people, is so centralized away from where the actual airlift takes place that you end up with not a clear idea of how cargo is staging, how it’s aggregating, how it’s moving,” said retired Lt. Col. Tony Carr.
“So you get an airlift crew that shows up to an airplane, and they get frustrated because there’s maybe a third or maybe a half of a cargo compartment being used, or in some case they’re flying one pallet or one piece of mail someplace. The Air Force has to do something about the in-transit visibility of cargo so that you have more of a FedEx or UPS-style system, where people know exactly what a piece of equipment is, where it’s going.”

The Air Force wants your ideas on how it can save money that can be used for more flying hours, tuition assistance and base repairs.

“We know there’s a lot of good ideas out there, and we want to unleash that,” said Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer.

With six months remaining in fiscal 2013, the Air Force’s budget has been cut by $10.8 billion and the service faces a $1.8 billion shortfall in overseas contingency operations funding for the war in Afghanistan, Spencer said in a March 27 interview.

“If my own family, if we were good financial stewards and we didn’t spend money frivolously and we really did a good job and halfway through the year I got my salary cut by a significant amount, the first thing we would do is call our family together and say, ‘OK, how are we going to make this work?’” he said.

From May 1 to June 1, you will be able to submit your suggestions online about how the service can spend money more efficiently as part of the Every Dollar Counts Campaign. The service will announce when the website is ready to take comments.

“We want to empower folks, particularly airmen out there, for example, who have had ideas in the past and said, ‘Well that’s too hard,’ or ‘We’ve got an AFI [Air Force Instruction] that says you can’t do that,’ or ‘They will never change that because it’s too hard,’” Spencer said. “We want them to go pull those ideas out of that file.”

Funding operations in Afghanistan would come first, and then the Air Force would look to transfer any money saved to underfunded items within its Operations and Maintenance account, such as flying hours, depot maintenance and contracts for base maintenance, he said.

Another program that would benefit from any money saved is tuition assistance, which the Air Force suspended March 11 due to budget cuts, Spencer said. The program was reinstated this month, but Congress did not give the services any extra money for it.

“We had budgeted about $130 million, and as of a couple of weeks ago, when the decision was made to stop offering tuition assistance, we were almost there,” he said. “Our projection was to not only spend out what we had budgeted — it probably would have been gone now — but the requirement was going to be another $90 million or so.”

Air Force leadership in the Pentagon and the major commands will look into cutting through the bureaucracy to make airmen’s ideas a reality, Spencer said.

“If the idea has merit and some red tape or some regulation or policy is holding it back, if it’s going to save us a lot of money, we’re going to try to see if we can implement it — try to see if we can get the policy changed,” he said.

When Air Force Times asked readers how they would save the Air Force money, retired Master Sgt. Matt Thewes suggested curtailing permanent change-of-station moves for officers.

Not only are officers on the move every couple of years, but they are allowed to take considerably more with them than enlisted airmen, and that ultimately costs the Air Force more money.

“When you’re PCSing thousands of officers every year, that’s like millions of dollars,” Thewes said. “If a commander could stay there for three years, you’d have better continuity, save some money.”

The Air Force could also save money by not turning on the electric lights in unused parking lots, said Amanda Ryan, whose husband is stationed at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

“I am pretty sure at least some of the fixtures are using sodium bulbs, which are outrageously priced,” she said in an email. “I'm sure our base isn’t the only one like this. If we turned off just half these lights at each base, it would save a ton of money.”

Even if the Air Force determines an idea would require a change to existing law, the service will still respond quickly to whoever suggested it, Spencer said.

The Air Force is already conducting 15 exercises to look for ways wing commands can partner with municipalities to save money, he said. In one example, a wing allowed a local community to use a base softball field if the community paid for the maintenance.

“That’s an example of where a bright idea of ‘Well, if we let you use it, will you pay to maintain it?’ saved the Air Force a lot of money,” Spencer said.

Until now, airmen have had an incentive to spend rather than save because they know their budget will likely be cut if they have money left at the end of the fiscal year.

That prompts units to go on end-of-year spending sprees to use up “fallout” cash on things they may not need, such as office supplies and furniture.

Spencer says the days of being punished for saving money are over.

“We are not going to cut someone’s budget if they come up with a good idea or they want to repurpose dollars to a broader priority in the Air Force,” he said.

That doesn’t mean airmen should not expect to receive any fallout cash this year, but they should count on getting less than in the past, Spencer said.

“I think there’s been fallout since 1947, and there will probably always be some,” he said. “There’s no way a year in advance you’re going to spend the last penny on the last day perfectly because there’s a lot of financial management in between.”

If there is money left at the end of the fiscal year, the Air Force needs to be more strategic in how it’s spent, Spencer said.

“Can we get another flying hour?” he said. “For a wing, for example: Can we use that money to pay our utility bill or can we get another project done to fix a roof?”

Unless lawmakers reach an agreement on taxes and spending, the defense spending cuts will last a decade. While the Air Force does not know how long these cuts will last, it is almost certain the service will have to deal with less money going forward, Spencer said.

“This challenge is going to be with us for a while, and we’re hoping that if we’re successful, that this will be the start of something that will pick up momentum and take us on to the out years as well,” he said.

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