WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army must put more money and effort into repairing poorly maintained and substandard base housing for military service members and their families, U.S. senators demanded Thursday, amid persistent reports that mold and other issues threaten troops' health.
One after another, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed top Army leaders during a hearing to spend money on military housing in their states.
"We have all heard the horror stories of substandard on base housing, military families across the country, living with black mold and collapsed ceilings and electrical and fire hazards and a lot of other substandard conditions," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "We need to fix our shameful military housing problem, and we need to do it as quickly as possible."
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth repeatedly told senators that housing is a priority, but that it competes for funding in the Army and defense budgets with other key needs, including equipment and weapons modernization and training. She said that due to the Army's vast size, it's impossible to get to all the problems in one year.
The Army, she said, is requesting nearly $2 billion for military housing in the 2023 proposed budget, and has a 10-year infrastructure plan. That plan would have the Army invest $27 billion in infrastructure over the next decade.
"We have a very large footprint with a large number of bases. All of them have housing. And I would love nothing more than to be able to renovate all of the housing around the country that needs to be renovated in a single year. But we are not able to do that," she said.
The housing focus comes on the heels of a massive fraud case involving one of the largest providers of military housing in the United States. Balfour Beatty Communities LLC, which oversees about 1,700 homes at bases in Georgia and Texas, faced widespread claims of negligence and failure to do repairs. The company pleaded guilty in December to committing fraud against the United States from 2013 to 2019, was ordered to pay $65.4 million in fines and restitution and was placed under an independent compliance monitor for three years.
A Senate panel earlier this year found that the company continues to respond inadequately to mold and other structural problems.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., criticized Army leaders for not addressing problems at Fort Leonard Wood, saying he's been given conflicting reports on what, if any, housing replacements would be funded at the base in his state.
"I was told last year there were $341 million that were going to be allocated towards replacing housing. Then I was told later only $50 million would be available to Fort Leonard Wood. And then I was told after that it would be zero," Hawley told Wormuth during the hearing. "You can imagine I'm not very happy about it."
Wormuth promised to nail down the correct answer, but again warned that repair money for the base may not be in the budget for fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
"We try to look where the need is most pressing and sort of develop a schedule," she said. "But I'd be happy to look into it. And I understand that you're frustrated hearing different things at different times."
Officials noted that the Army submitted a separate request to Congress that outlined projects that aren't funded in the budget that would also be priorities, and thy include an additional $330 million for housing issues.
That additional money, said Warren, should be included in the Army's base budget, if, indeed, housing is a priority as leaders say. And she questioned why the $1.9 billion total for housing in the main budget request is 40% smaller than the current budget would provide.
According to the Army, the $1.9 billion budget request is actually a 12% increase over last year's request. Congress, however, voted to add nearly $1.5 billion in military construction funds to that request, resulting in a total of more than $3.2 billion for the year. Congress has not yet acted on the proposed budget, so has not added funds.
Gen. James McConville, the chief of staff of the Army, told senators the Army is doing all it can to ensure quality housing and other services for troops. "When our soldiers get the call that it's time to deploy, we want them laser focused on their mission, knowing that their families will be well taken care of at home," McConville said.