Average commute in the Washington area is roughly half an hour. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)
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Methodology for ranking bases
To compile our ranking of 68 Air Force bases, we collected and analyzed hundreds of pieces of information.
Air Force Times evaluated statistics in a dozen categories: school quality, cost of living, housing costs, commissary size, base exchange size, size of on-base health care facilities, crime rates, commute times, pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes. We then assigned each category a score on a 10-point scale.
■ To come up with a school quality score, we used the website GreatSchools.com, a respected resource for ranking and comparing schools used by real estate agents and real estate websites such as Zillow and Realtor.com. GreatSchools evaluates schools on a 10-point scale based on a combination of their standardized test scores, whether students are improving from year to year, and college readiness, defined as how well students take and score on SAT and ACT tests, and their graduation rates. We searched for all rated schools within a 10-mile radius of each base and averaged their scores to come up with an overall school score.
■ We pulled information on cost of living, housing, crime rates, commute times, pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes from the website Sperling’s Best Places, which compiles demographic and other data on communities around the country. We used formulas to convert the raw data from each category into a 10-point scale. BestPlaces.net’s crime statistics had low numbers for low crime rates and high numbers for high crime rates. We converted the statistics so lower crime rates would result in higher scores for bases.
■ Sperling’s Best Places also provided data it collected on the size and type of on-base commissaries, exchanges and health care facilities, and rankings on a 10-point scale.
Of course, not all categories are equally important to service members. We’d wager school quality, for example, is a greater concern than the sales tax rate. So we weighted each category. Scores for the most important categories — schools, cost of living, housing and commissaries — were tripled. The next most important categories — crime, health care facilities, commute times and exchanges — were doubled in value. And the last four categories — pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes — got no additional weighting.
Finally, we added up the scores and stacked the bases.
Based on Air Force Times research, these are the five least-popular bases — from fifth worst to worst — to be stationed in the Air Force:
5. (tied) Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C.
Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, formerly Bolling Air Force Base, ends up in our bottom five primarily due to the Washington area’s abysmal traffic — year after year, ranked the worst in the country — and high cost of housing. The average commute in the Washington area is roughly half an hour, and hits nearly 40 minutes in the area right around Bolling — well longer than the average 25-minute commute nationwide.
A home in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, has a median cost of $455,300. And an Arlington, Virginia, house hits a punishing median cost of $583,400 — well over triple the $170,100 median home cost nationwide.
Sweltering summers — the average high temperature in July hits an always-muggy 89 degrees — and high crime rates in the District of Columbia also dragged Bolling’s score down. Bolling’s crime score was 3 out of 10, much lower than the nationwide average of 6.
Nearby Northern Virginia’s schools are popularly known as among the best in the country, and some live up to that reputation. But other schools received low rankings from the Great Schools website, dragging the Washington area’s school score into the average range of 6 out of 10 possible points.
5. (tied) Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts
Hanscom Air Force Base near Bedford, Massachusetts, has a lot going for it. In our survey, it ended up with one of the highest school rankings — 8 out of 10 — the lowest crime rates—receiving 9 points out of 10, far greater than the nationwide average of 6 — and lowest unemployment rates — 3.9 percent compared with 6.1 percent nationally.
But the area’s high cost of living and housing prices — partly because it is about a 25-mile drive from Boston —landed Hanscom in the bottom five. A home in Bedford will run you a median cost of $546,500.
In an interview, Debra Westervelt, Hanscom’s capital asset manager, acknowledged that the Bedford housing market is “pretty tight,” and said many airmen assigned there choose to live on base for that reason. But Westervelt said if someone really wants an off-base home, her office can usually find something for them within 20 or 30 minutes of Hanscom.
As the only active-duty military base in New England, spokesman Justin Oakes said, Hanscom hosts many civilians and service members from other branches of the military, which also leads to a high occupancy rate on base.
“We’re pretty full,” Oakes said.
To help airmen mitigate the cost of living — which Westervelt acknowledged can sometimes make it tough to make ends meet — Hanscom offers an on-base fitness center, Olympic-size swimming pool, bowling alley, movie theater, community center, several playgrounds, and a bank, as well as a commissary and medical clinic.
“For such a small base, we do have quite a lot of amenities,” Oakes said. Hanscom has a total workforce of 5,828, including 922 active duty service members and 92 reservists. The rest are civilian government employees and contractors.
Bedford is a great place to raise children, said Lisa Pizarro, the school liaison officer at Hanscom. The nonprofit group America’s Promise Alliance, which was founded by Colin Powell, has listed Bedford as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People five times.
And at the end of each school year, Pizarro said, Bedford High School holds a party for students whose families are transferring away from Hanscom, which is attended by base leaders.
“It’s more of a celebration,” Pizarro said. “You might be leaving, but you’re always part of the community.”
3. (tied) McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas
Disappointing schools, higher-than-average crime rates, and high taxes combined to place McConnell Air Force Base, located near Wichita, Kansas, near the bottom of our list. The average GreatSchools.com ranking of schools within a 10-mile radius was 4 out of a possible 10. McConnell’s crime score was 3 out of a possible 10, lower than the nationwide average score of 6. And sales taxes there are 7.15 percent, higher than the usual 6 percent.
While McConnell has a large commissary, its small medical clinic and disappointing base exchange also hurt the base’s ranking.
And it’s hot, too. According to Sperling’s Best Places, average July temperatures in Wichita hit a scorching 93 degrees.
3. (tied) Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi
The on-base amenities for Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi are disappointing. The base’s commissary is small, its only medical facility is a clinic, and its small exchange is just a shoppette. There are 2,744 people assigned to Columbus, including 1,447 military service members, 598 contractors, and 472 civil servants.
The 7 percent sales tax is higher than the nationwide average of 6 percent, and summer hits hard, averaging 92-degree temperatures in July. And if your spouse hopes to find a job in the local community, that’s going to be tough — Columbus’ unemployment rate is a staggering 12.9 percent, more than double the nationwide rate.
Staff Sgt. Jason Do has been stationed at Columbus for five years and called it “one of the worst bases” in the Air Force.
“I’m realizing more and more that it is just a black hole for enlisted members,” Do said. “Everything closes early on base and around town. It’s so small that there is no chow hall. Columbus is a career-ending base, where many have retired [or] separated due to just being stuck at the base.”
Do said Columbus’ exchange is horrible, and he usually goes to Wal-Mart instead.
“It’s hard to find anything that’ll fit, and there isn’t much selection” at the exchange, Do said. “It’s easier sometimes to ask a friend to get you something when they are TDY.”
Do says that for airmen stationed in Columbus, it’s tough to afford to eat healthily and stay fit. Since there’s no chow hall, he tries to find healthy foods off base. But that food is much more expensive than junk food, he said, meaning he sometimes has to make a choice between eating healthily and making ends meet.
And Do said the Basic Allowance for Housing in the Columbus area — he gets $807 a month — is far too low for airmen to live on.
“A lot of people have to have roommates just to not live in a bad area, which Columbus, Mississippi, has many of,” Do said. “I also know that a lot of enlisted members have a second job to support their families.”
On the bright side, traffic is light.
1. Los Angeles Air Force Base
It may be fun to have pristine beaches and Disneyland practically in the backyard of your duty station. It also may drain your bank account.
Cost of living and housing prices are through the roof around Los Angeles Air Force Base, helping to land it at the bottom of our list of Air Force bases. BestPlaces.net’s cost of living score for nearbyEl Segundo, California, is 218, more than double the nationwide average of 100. The median home cost there is a whopping $766,000. The 9 percent sales tax and 7.6 percent unemployment rate are also high. And the schools are middling, with average ranking of 5 within 10 miles.
Despite the astronomical costs of living in L.A., BAH rates are surprisingly low. For example, a staff sergeant without dependents in L.A. gets a monthly BAH of $1,704 and a chief master sergeant without dependents gets $2,373.
There are at least a dozen other locations where airmen receive more — not just places like New York City and Honolulu, but also West Point, New York; Oakland, California; Fort Monmouth, New Jersey; and New Haven, Connecticut.
Capt. Angel Vargas, a group practice manager for the 375th Medical Group at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, who was previously stationed at L.A., said that he loved the near-constant 70-degree weather there, as well as all the social things to do. But he estimated food and housing expenses there were easily three to four times as much as in the Scott area.
“That’s more money I can spend on my daughter now, on after-school events,” Vargas said. “It’s better for my family.”