The head of the state's Office of Military Affairs said Tuesday that he believes the Defense Department's request for a round of base closures in 2013 was really just a way to start the conversation.
Bob Ross was at Monday's speech by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the Association of Defense Communities in Monterey, Calif., when he announced that he was abandoning the proposal for a Base Realignment and Closure process next year.
"Everyone out here agrees we should expect the next BRAC to happen in 2015," Ross said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "The request will probably go to Congress in January of 2013. In my view, the heavy lifting really starts early next year when that happens."
Panetta had said he wanted rounds of base closures in 2013 and again in 2015. The Naval Submarine Base in Groton nearly closed during the 2005 process.
But Panetta never allocated funding to implement a BRAC in the 2013 budget proposal, and Ross said he viewed this as "clear evidence" that Panetta didn't expect Congress to authorize it.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he believed there wasn't the political will for BRAC, but said he was still relieved when he heard about Panetta's comments.
"Given some of what I've seen in my first 18 months in Washington, I always breathe a sigh of relief when reason prevails and that's no joke," Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Tuesday.
BRAC is a "misguided mirage, offering false hopes of savings," Blumenthal added, but supporters of the base should not "run a victory lap" at this point.
"We still have an election with the possibility of a change in administration, which means all bets are off," he said.
Panetta said Monday in his speech, "now is not the time for a BRAC round, particularly when our economy is struggling to recover, but the reality is that the Department is going to need to take a hard look at what we do in terms of support infrastructure as we seek to reduce overhead costs.
"It is an important debate that we have to have, and frankly, it's not going away," he said, according to the transcript.
The state's strategy moving forward, Ross said, should be to continue to partner with the Navy to invest in the base to enhance its significance. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also said now is the time to "redouble our efforts" to strengthen the base's military value, "which is the best guarantee to an enduring future."
The federal and state governments together have spent more than $150 million on projects at the base since 2005, of which the state's share has been about $11 million so far, Ross said. The state legislature authorized $40 million in 2007 to fix one of the Pentagon's main problems with the installation, its aging infrastructure.
Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger said it would be wrong to think the base is now "BRAC-proofed, or there won't be another BRAC or something like it."
"We can't rest on our laurels," he said, noting that the town is "working on a couple of things outside the main gate that will be beneficial."
The state is helping the towns of Groton and Ledyard buy land around the Naval Submarine Base to prevent development from encroaching on base operations. Oefinger hopes the town also may be able to proceed with long-awaited improvements to the intersection of Crystal Lake Road and Military Highway, which would improve traffic flow.
Oefinger said while he, too, thought Panetta was "testing the water," "it certainly is helpful and reassuring to hear that, in fact, even the secretary has given up for 2013."