GARDINER — Lt. Col. Dwaine Drummond led a committee of legislators through the 60-year-old Army National Guard armory, pointing out areas needing improvement.
There was the drill hall’s uninsulated ceiling and the door to an indoor shooting range that remained shut because the guard is unable to remove enough lead from the room.
The tour of the Gardiner facility Wednesday gave members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee a firsthand look at the condition of aging armory and highlighted budget issues facing the Maine National Guard.
“That visual component really puts the stamp on the problem,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, after the tour. “It’s really eye-opening.”
“The state of our armories is deplorable, and we’re doing a disservice to our National Guard,” she added.
Drummond, director of director of facilities and engineering for the Maine Army National Guard, said the Gardiner armory’s condition and age are similar to more than half of the state’s 23 readiness centers, or armories, which prepare soldiers for deployment in the state and abroad.
Since the late 1980s, the state has closed 11 armories that were in similar disrepair, and Gardiner’s armory could be the next to go, he said.
Drummond said the Gardiner armory probably will be demolished after the 133rd Engineer Battalion moves to its future headquarters at the $23 million readiness center being built in Brunswick, although that hasn’t been determined yet.
“My best guess is the facility will be torn down,” he said. “If we were to keep it, we’d be at the same place we are now — just throwing good money at a bad problem.”
The facility being built at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station is set to be completed by the end of 2014.
Drummond said the most pressing need for many of the readiness centers is improvements in energy efficiency. He said most of the operating and maintenance budget for facilities is spent on heat and utilities. Repairs usually are done only if they are absolutely necessary, such as fixing a broken boiler, he said.
Besides being unable to fund maintenance such as replacing old windows, most state-funded readiness centers can’t afford custodial services. The full-time employees preparing weekend drills and other training at the facilities do all the general upkeep work such as mowing lawns, sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, Drummond said.
“I’m pretty sure there aren’t any other state departments where the employees have to clean the toilets,” he told the legislators. “To me that kind of sums it up. We do what we have to do.”
Rep. David Johnson, R-Eddington, said he remembers having to clean everything during his time in the Marines.
Drummond said soldiers in training still are expected to perform cleaning duties as part of their service, but he doesn’t think the ones working at the facilities should have to do so as part of their duties.
He reiterated that other state employees don’t clean toilets.
“Maybe they should,” said Rep. Jeffery Allen Gifford, R-Lincoln.
Need for federal funds
The National Guard originated from colonial militias and serves both the state and federal governments. Since it serves both, the Maine National Guard is jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Guard Bureau and the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.
This year, the state’s department had a total budget of $6.3 million and $3.3 million for the Army and Air National Guards, according to Deputy Commissioner Daniel Goodheart. The $6.3 million is down $3 million from five years ago, he said.
Total federal funding for the Maine National Guard averages around $326 million, according to Col. Donald Lagace, the National Guard Bureau’s U.S. property and fiscal officer for Maine.
But part of the federal funding depends on matching funds from the state, Lagace said. About $65 million to $70 million of federal funding is tied directly to around $2 million in matching state funding through a cooperative agreement, mostly in operations and maintenance, he said.
If the state cuts part of that funding, the Maine National Guard will see an even larger cut in federal dollars. Gov. Paul LePage’s curtailment order issued at the end of last year included a $76,000 cut from the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management and $10,000 from military training and operations.
Russell, who is serving her third year in the veterans and legal affairs committee, said the relationship that requires matching state money is why it’s so important to preserve the funding for the Maine National Guard.
“Everytime we cut back on those items, that’s less and less our National Guard has to be ready for a disaster,” she said.
Johnson, in his second year on the committee, said if extra funding can be found, he would advocate for it to be spent on improving the current facilities.
“I wish we had all the money we need to take care of these guys the way we should, but until we find some more money somewhere, everyone has to tighten up their belts a bit,” he said.
Peter Rogers, spokesman for the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, said the committee has been supportive of the National Guard, and the visit to the Gardiner armory was a good chance for them to take a closer look at the department.
“What we’re looking for is to make sure we can provide the state match to continue to bring in all those federal funds,” he said.
Rogers said the employees have done a great job of fixing aging facilities with few state funds for maintenance, but “you can only put a Band-Aid on so much.”
Future of armories
The state funding of readiness centers depends on whether the facility is on state or federally owned or leased land, as well as its use, Drummond said.
The share of maintenance and operating expenses in state facilities such as the armory in Gardiner typically is split 50-50, while those owned by the federal government are completely funded by the feds. The state pays 25 percent for operations that also hold federal units or were opened for a federal directive, Drummond said.
Only three readiness centers are on federally owned or leased land, but Drummond said any new buildings probably will be built on federal land, like the new readiness center in Brunswick.
He said Maine would have had to contribute $5 million to $6 million — nearly all of the department’s budget — toward the $23 million construction cost if it were on state-owned or leased land.
Since the 1990s, four readiness centers have been built or bought, and only two of those were to replace the 11 that were closed, according Drummond.
He said closing the armories caused the Maine National Guard to lose a presence in the communities and made it more difficult to recruit from those areas.
Having fewer readiness stations also makes it more challenging to respond to emergencies, Drummond said.
Rogers said the overall number of Maine National Guard members has remained consistent in recent years, and that the facility closings have been part of a general consolidation.
The average age of a readiness center in the country is 67 years, and most armories in the state will exceed that in 10 years, according to Drummond.
He said those aging armories probably won’t be closed anytime soon, because he expects less federal money to be available for the construction of new facilities. Drummond said it could be another 25 years before they’re all replaced.
“We’re competing for limited resources, like everyone else,” he said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663