Even if San Diegans enact a controversial rezoning plan for Barrio Logan, the U.S. Navy intends to keep doing business along the local waterfront, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said during an appearance at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard on Thursday.
"However the vote works out, we will continue to work with NASSCO and the city to ensure that we get the right number and quality of ships we need," Mabus told a dockside audience of more than 1,000 shipyard workers and Navy sailors.
Because of his status at the Pentagon, Mabus said it would be inappropriate to comment on a referendum slated for the June 3 ballot, which would overturn the City Council's decision to create a commercial zone in Barrio Logan as a buffer between the shipyards and residential areas.
But Mabus' repeated assurances of a continued Navy presence on the waterfront contrast with the shipyards' claims that the Navy might leave San Diego if the zoning plan was upheld, putting all 56,000 jobs in the shipyards at risk.
Derry Pence, president of the San Diego Ship Repair Association, on Thursday said he still feels the zoning plan is "a dangerous first step toward the elimination of thousands of middle-class jobs,” adding that he "respected the secretary's commitment to letting San Diego voters decide this important question."
Supporters of the plan, which the City Council passed in October after six years of public hearings, say it would help create new jobs in Barrio Logan while preserving existing shipbuilding and repair operations, although it does impose some growth restrictions and increases the permitting process for new businesses.
Mabus said NASSCO seemed well-positioned to attract continuing business from the Navy as well as the private sector. Since last May, for instance, NASSCO has won orders for four 50,000-ton cargo ships for Florida's Seabulk Tankers and four for Pennsylvania's Petroleum Product Tankers.
"That's a real tribute to your skill and dedication, showing that American shipbuilders can compete with any shipbuilders in the world," Mabus said.
He also said San Diego should benefit from the Navy's shift toward the Pacific. Currently, 55 percent of the fleet focuses on the Pacific and Persian Gulf region -- and that number is projected to rise to 60 percent over the next several years. NASSCO, the only full-service shipbuilding and repair operation on the West Coast, currently handles much of the Pacific fleet's repair and maintenance business.
Mabus said one reason the Navy is committed to San Diego is the skill and productivity of the shipyard workers. "Every ship that is built here costs less and takes fewer hours than the ship that was built before it," he said, referring specifically to NASSCO's work on the Navy's T-AKE cargo ship program.
He added that he hopes Congress will include funding for NASSCO to build a mobile landing platform ship in a budget proposal slated for passage in March, "although I'll never make a guess as to what Congress will or won't do."
But Mabus warned that Congressional budget battles will continue to have a negative impact on the shipyards' work for the Navy.
For nearly a decade, he noted, not a single federal budget has passed on time, leading to the use of "continuing resolutions" -- stopgap spending measures that reflect what was spent in the previous year rather than the money required for current needs.
He said that the restricted spending under continuing resolutions has been particularly hard on repair and maintenance work, hampering the Navy's ability to extend the lifetime of its ships and making it harder for contractors to make long-term decisions.
"I wish I could give more certainty to you, but the budget deal that Congress struck [after last fall's government shutdown] only goes through 2015," he said. "In the meantime, if we go through another sequester or government shutdown or if we start relying on continuing resolutions, things could change."
He said the military should be able to cut spending after the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he added that recent budget cuts -- especially the sequester, which requires across-the-board cuts on programs regardless of their merits -- have been counterproductive.
"We're being mandated to make dumb decisions, which aren't made with any strategy and often raises costs," he said. "There has to come a point when we can't keep doing things this way."
Sailors from the San Diego-based USS Independence complained that some of the cutbacks were affecting them personally, including a slowdown of pension payout increases and an increase in fees for its Tricare health insurance plan.
But Mabus warned that "if we don't get control over some of these costs, we're not going to be able to build the ships we need or the tools and equipment that you need to do your job and eventually we'll have to start cutting our force levels as well."
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