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The Associated Press September 30, 2005

Senate panel inserts $10 million for Parsons plant scheduled to close

By John Milburn

TOPEKA, Kan. - The Parsons Army Ammunition Plant is destined to close, but Congress still may spend over $10 million for assembly line improvements before it shuts its doors.

The Pentagon, President Bush and the Base Closure and Realignment Commission all agree the southeast Kansas plant is expendable. Even so, Sen. Sam Brownback got the extra money tucked into a defense spending bill before the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he sits, approved it this week.

"Normally you don't spend money on a facility that's about to be closed," said John Pike, a military analyst with globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "It's basically doing an end-run around BRAC."

The Parsons plant, with 320 employees, was the only Kansas military installation targeted for closure. The federal facility is operated by Day & Zimmermann on a sprawling complex southeast of the city.

Jim Maher, plant personnel director, said he was a bit surprised by the appropriation.

But he noted that improvements in the assembly line were planned - and started - before the base-closing commission made its recommendations, which Congress must accept or reject in full by Oct. 30. There's no firm timetable for closing the plant, which has government contracts through 2007.

The $10 million would finance a new phase of a project to make it easier and safer to retool the line when the plant switches to making different types of ammunition.

"It serves us better because we won't have the longer changeover time," Maher said.

Also included in the committee bill is $15 million for production of 155mm artillery shells, which are among the plant's primary products.

"They aren't giving us new business," Maher said. "It's continuing business that we already do."

The bill earmarked $70 million for Kansas projects, including $10 million for development of an airborne laser missile defense system in Wichita.

The bill awaits a vote by the Senate, and negotiators from both chambers then must work out the final version.

The House didn't include money for the Parsons plant in its version after the base-closing commission endorsed its closure.

Brownback spokesman Brian Hart said the decision to close the plant isn't final and the money looks toward the future.

"While it won't be a government-run facility, it is unclear if it will be privatized, merged or closed," Hart said. "The best way to preserve jobs in Parsons, if we can, is to make sure the facility is fully functional and necessary upgrades are completed."

Sen. Pat Roberts arranged a meeting recently between state leaders and Pentagon officials in hopes of speeding up the transfer of the plant's land and property to a private company. The plant became a federal munitions site during World War II.

Roberts spokeswoman Molly Mueller said because of that meeting, Parsons will be the first site on the base-closing commission's list to be visited by The Staubach Company, a Texas-based real estate firm.

Maher said the future of the Parsons site as a munitions manufacturer was unclear. The plant could be transferred to local officials and leased to Day & Zimmermann to operate. However, it would still have to compete with remaining Army ammunition plants for defense contracts.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, said if a private company takes over the plant after it closes, it would have an advantage over competing munitions manufacturers.

"That doesn't sound terribly fair to the rest of the country," Schatz said. "It also sets a bad precedent for other facilities that are on the BRAC list."

He added: "If every member of Congress did this, we'd have these facilities kept open in the hopes of future business by private companies. I don't think that what the process intended."

But Pike said the investment could pay off for Parsons if the contractor won future government contracts to build other munitions.

"It's unusual but not necessarily unreasonable," Pike said. "It's known in the business as bringing home the bacon."

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Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.


Copyright 2005, The Associated Press