The airmen who live at Mountain Home Air Force Base will soon have a new landlord: a British-owned military housing management company that is based in Pennsylvania.
Balfour Beatty Communities is expected to become the new owner and manager of all the housing at the Southwest Idaho military base as soon as Wednesday, according to Lt. Col. Michal Holliday, 366th Civil Engineer Squadron commander.
Weve already got them in our offices and are working with them, said Holliday, who, with a team of eight, supervised family housing at the base until now.
As part of a deal with the federal government, Balfour Beatty has agreed to demolish about 311 dilapidated housing units and build 60 new ones (a unit is a single-family home or half a duplex). It will add new amenities, including a community center and sports fields.
Holliday estimated the development at $10 million to $15 million.
Balfour Beatty Construction is the general contractor for the project. Construction on new homes likely will begin next year, a representative for Balfour Beatty told the Statesman.
They get to choose who they work with. We dont have a lot of control over that, Holliday said. Obviously we encourage them to use local contractors.
The company did a business outreach event in Boise in March. Twenty-one vendors and subcontractors attended, an official said.
Balfour Beatty will use mostly local materials and subcontractors, so the county and state will benefit in that respect, said Elmore County Assessor Ron Fisher, who has followed the base project closely since it was first discussed a couple of years ago.
WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?
The Department of Defense and Congress decided in 1996 that housing privatization was the way to go. At the time, half of the U.S. militarys 270,000 family housing units worldwide needed renovation or repair at an estimated cost of $25 billion.
For the past 15 years, the military has worked to convey ownership, construction and management to private companies. The goal: use private-sector financing to quickly improve aging housing through renovations and building new homes.
Mountain Home is among the last to be privatized. The base was part of a six-base deal Balfour Beatty Communities landed. Company officials declined to discuss specifics until the deal is finalized.
Its a really complex real-estate transaction, Holliday said.
The other five Air Force bases are Minot, Grand Forks and Cavalier Air Force Station, all in North Dakota; Ellsworth in South Dakota; and Cannon in New Mexico. The six bases are collectively called the Northern Group.
The estimated cost to build more than 4,700 housing units at the six bases is $470 million, according to a November press release. The federal government estimated appropriation for these projects is just $7.4 million.
This opportunity allows us to broaden our geographic presence throughout the United States, increasing our military housing footprint to 53 military installations within 25 states and Washington, D.C., said Chris Williams, president of Balfour Beatty Communities LLC.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The private companies that enter these agreements gain ownership of all base housing existing and new for 50 years, though the government still owns the land.
It wont mean new tax revenue for Elmore County, Fisher said.
We have no jurisdiction on the base, he said. Its government property. We cant go in there and do any taxes, regardless of who owns it.
Fisher said the private companies cant mortgage or sell the property and dont have any of the rights of a real owner.
So what do they get out of it?
They end up with a contract for lease and maintenance, Fisher said. Theyre basically property managers.
The private companies cant jack up housing rents, which are pegged to the basic allowance for housing, with the estimated cost of utilities included.
If base housing isnt 95 percent occupied with active-duty Air Force personnel for more than 30 consecutive days, the company can rent to others.
A tier system determines whom the housing would be offered to, starting with active-duty military personnel in the Army, Navy, Marines and Guardsmen/Reservists. The second tier includes federal civil service employees, retired military and retired federal civil service employes. The third tier is Department of Defense contractors, and the fourth is the general public.
The Mountain Home base has about 1,155 housing units, including single-family houses and duplexes. Because some are in such poor condition, only 844 are occupied.
The move to privatize and upgrade the housing has been well received on the base.
Overall, I think it will be very good for the base, said Ret. Air Force Col. Bill Richey, the Idaho Military Divisions liaison between the base and the state.
Its been good for other bases, Richey said. They get good quality homes that are at least par with the rest of downtown.
WHATS A REASONABLE COMMUTE?
The military tries not to compete with the local housing market.
The Department of Defense policy is that a military base should support its family housing requirement through the community, said Lt. Col. Holliday, the housing supervisor.
The base aims to provide enough housing for key and essential personnel, including 30 wing leaders.
Single airmen who are at or below the pay grade E-4 near the middle of the nine grades of enlisted people and who have less than three years of service are required to live on base.
The rest of the folks have the option of where they want to live, Holliday said. He estimated that 30 to 40 percent of airmen live on base.
When Air Force Staff Sgt. John Brink came to Mountain Home Air Force Base about a year and a half ago, he and his wife seriously considered living off base.
Brink, a father of two young children, said they decided against it because he didnt want to spend so much time on the boring commute from Mountain Home or other cities in the region.
It was common sense to live on base, said Brink, who has friends who live as far away as Boise and Kuna. That would be just a really ridiculous drive.
Their excuse is always, when theyre off work, they want to be away from work, said Brink, who is from Nebraska. I dont feel that way. It doesnt bother me to live on base.
The Air Force used to require airmen to live within a 45-minute commute. But about 10 years ago, the Department of Defense changed the reasonable commuting distance to a 60-minute drive, a base official said.
That put Boise within that realm of possibility, particularly at Columbia Village, Mountain Home Mayor Tom Rist said. The subdivision in Southeast Boise is about 50 miles from Mountain Home.
If we dont have the amenities that theyre looking for in the community, theyre going to go elsewhere, Rist said. Boise has a boatload.
RENTS TIED TO RANK, PAY
Military personnel receive a basic allowance for housing based on their rank. The allowance is withheld from the paychecks of those who live on base.
The monthly allowance runs from $636 for the pay grade E-1 (a basic enlistee) with no dependents ($846 with a dependent) to $1,335 for the pay grade O-7 (a brigadier general) with no dependents ($1,470 with a dependent), according to the base website.
SHORT AND NEAT
Brink and his family live in a two-story, three-bedroom, 2.5-bath house in the bases Desert Skies subdivision, which could be in any middle-class subdivision in the Treasure Valley. A hint that youre not is that service members names and ranks are visible on the front of the houses.
The housing for officers is separate from housing for enlisted airmen. Pilots and support personnel from the Republic of Singapore who have been training at Mountain Home since a 20-year deal was struck in 2009 live throughout the base.
The Desert Skies subdivision has some of the newest houses on the base, built a decade ago by the Air Force.
Its pretty new and pretty nice, Brink said. Weve been pretty lucky when it comes to our base housing.
He said the home is on par with base housing at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
Brink said housing and services at Tyndall got better under the new private owner, which was Balfour Beatty Communities. He said the rules were more forgiving, and the private owner mowed the lawn if it wasnt fenced in.
Here, youre required to do it yourself, and you have to water it, he said of the current rules.
The militarys policy on lawn care at the base is similar to rules about hair: Keep it short and neat.
Balfour Beattys detractors have created a Facebook page (Military who hate Balfour Beatty Communities) and discussion groups for those upset with services.
But Brink has no concerns about the privatization.
I dont find it a big deal at all, he said. Im just changing landlords.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413