May 13, 2011

Pingree pushes proposal to keep commissary open

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Profits from alcohol and tobacco sales could keep the commissary for the former Brunswick Naval Air Station open until at least September 2012 and perhaps indefinitely, says U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

A proposal by Pingree designed to extend the life of the popular commissary in Topsham, which sells low-cost groceries, was included late Wednesday night in a broader defense bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee.

Pingree, a member of the committee, wrote an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is expected to pass the House within a month or so, permitting the Pentagon to set up a pilot program to keep commissaries at closed military bases open for a year after they are slated to close. The program would allow the commissaries to sell alcohol and tobacco products as a way to increase profits.

Pingree, along with Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, have been fighting to keep the commissary in Topsham open. It originally was scheduled to close in March, but legislation pushed through last year by the Maine delegation kept it open until at least Sept. 15.

Thousands of active duty military members and veterans in the area, as well as their dependents, have come to rely on the low-cost items at the commissary, Maine lawmakers say.

"The Navy needs to keep the commissary open," Pingree said in a prepared statement Thursday. "There are so many active duty and retired military personnel in the area that deserve and depend on the low-cost groceries they can buy at the commissary. Access to a commissary is part of their benefits -- it's something they earned."

Her legislation doesn't name the commissary in Topsham, but refers to commissaries at military bases that have been shut down.

"Clearly we wrote this amendment with Brunswick in mind, and as soon as it gets passed into law we'll demand that the Pentagon apply it to the commissary in Maine," Pingree said.

Pingree's hope is that after a year of increased sales -- and profits -- through sales of alcohol and tobacco, the Navy will decide to keep the commissary open indefinitely.

Collins and Snowe were making their own push this week to keep the commissary open.

The senators released a report by the Government Accountability Office -- a report they requested -- that they said shows the criteria used by the Department of Defense to determine whether commissaries should be closed "are not clear," and that the Pentagon must make those standards more clear.

Collins and Snowe have sent a letter to Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, urging him not to close any commissaries until the defense department reviews its closure criteria in light of the report.

"It is troubling to us that the Department has relied upon undefined terms (for general and economic criteria) in previous assessments to justify the closure of the Topsham commissary, particularly when evidence indicates that it performs better than many other commissaries," Collins and Snowe wrote in their letter to Stanley.

"With more than 10,000 eligible beneficiaries in the immediate region, DOD should not even be considering eliminating access to a commissary in the Brunswick-Topsham area," Snowe added in a statement this week.

Jonathan Riskind -- 791-6280


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