Corps expected to get same, better funding|[2/10/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 10, 2005

If Congress continues its pattern of increasing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ budget, locally based operations expect at least level allocations for their work.

President Bush has submitted his proposed budget for the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1, and he has recommended cutting by 7 percent the appropriation for the entire Corps’ civil works program for the current fiscal year.

If the outcome of the previous year’s budgeting process is any guide, though, the Corps and its operations based here could end up with an increase in funding for next fiscal year.

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The president has asked for $4.3 billion in funding for civil works, down from the current year’s $4.7 billion.

During last year’s budget process, however, Congress increased the amount requested by the president by about $453 million, or 11 percent.

If Congress were to approve the president’s budget as written, the budgets of two of Vicksburg’s three major Corps employers, the Mississippi Valley Division and the Vicksburg District of that division, would be reduced. The division’s budget would drop from about $954 million to about $900 million and the district’s from about $203 million to about $149 million.

Similar proposed cuts were also included in the budget the president proposed last February. By the time Congress was finished with its appropriations process, however, his proposed budget for the entire Corps’ civil works program had grown and the budgets for the MVD and Vicksburg District had grown by up to about 14 and 45 percent.

Since 1993 the Corps has focused more on what it calls “performance-based budgeting,” said the MVD’s deputy director of programs, Mark Mazzanti. A dollar value of the return on each project is estimated in an effort to measure the cost-effectiveness of each project and provide an objective basis for projects to compete for funding.

All projects under consideration must provide a positive estimated return, but some are expected to provide greater returns than others. As an example of one of the highest returns on an investment, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project that the MVD administers has earned or saved the nation 34 dollars for every dollar of investment, MVD public affairs chief John Rickey said. The river’s drainage basin gathers water from 41 percent of the continental United States.

“If Congress chooses to reach down (to fund a project with a lower expected return on investment), it’s still going to justify that investment,” Mazzanti said. Congress and the president, not the Corps itself, ultimately determine which Corps projects get funded, he added.

The MR&T Project was begun in 1928, following the Mississippi River flood of 1927. The next year the headquarters of the Mississippi River Commission was moved to Vicksburg from St. Louis.

The Vicksburg District encompasses 68,000 square miles, including the basins of seven rivers and 460 miles of mainline levees in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It protects 17 million acres of land from regional flooding.

ERDC, at the Waterways Experiment Station site on Halls Ferry Road, receives about three-quarters of its funding from military sources. About one-quarter of its funding comes from the Corps’ budget for civil works.

“In our civil works program, ERDC’s portion of the president’s civil works budget for ’06 increased from ’05,” said the center’s director, Dr. James R. Houston. “The Aquatic Plant Control program increased from $2.5 million to $3 million. The Aquatic Nuisance Control program increased from $653,000 to $690,000. Both the Coastal Inlets Research program and the Dredging Operations and Environmental program have the same funding in ’06 as ’05.

“But we will not know the real outcome until Congress finalizes and approves the budget in the coming months.”

The ERDC conducts research for Corps civil works and military projects as well as for other federal agencies, state and municipal authorities and with U.S. industry through work agreements.

The president’s budget also calls for a $144 million increase to upgrade National Park Service facilities.

The superintendent of the Vicksburg National Military Park, Monika Mayr, said the initial proposal looked “very kind to the National Park Service.”

“We fared better than most other agencies,” she said.

“Based on what summaries we’ve read, the president’s budget calls for an increase for maintenance-backlog projects.”

One of those projects for the VNMP is a road-reconstruction project that is expected to begin this year, Mayr added. Part of the park’s 16-mile tour road has slid following more than a year of unusually heavy rain.