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Area congressmen urge Panetta to protect air base

Western New York's congressional delegation Friday fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urging the Defense Department to preserve the again-threatened Niagara Falls Air Base as "an active and central player in our nation's Air Force."

On a visit to Buffalo, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand ranked keeping the Niagara Falls facility as a top priority and said she and her colleagues are now intensifying their efforts.

"Niagara has deployed about 1,500 personnel for Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's a mutual training facility for the National Guard, Reserve and law enforcement," she told editors and reporters at The Buffalo News.

"We have to cut spending and tighten our belts because of our massive debt," she added. "Our argument is you reduce short- and long-term economic growth, and you're not going to save money."

Gillibrand was joined Friday by Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Reps. Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport and Kathleen C. Hochul of Amherst -- all Democrats -- in a save-the-base campaign expected to ramp up at various locations around the state and nation.

Gillibrand said she and the state delegation also will seek to preserve facilities in Syracuse, Rome and Schenectady, and that equal arguments exist for all. But the Western New York delegation letter to Panetta concentrates on Niagara Falls, mostly noting that past efforts to close the sprawling facility failed because arguments of cost-effectiveness prevailed.

"In 2005, after an exhaustive examination of the facts, the commission concluded that it would take over a quarter century before the Department of Defense would see any cost saving from closing Niagara Falls," the representatives said. "In fact, the examination demonstrated that the alleged saving that would be achieved by closing Niagara was not accurate, and that the federal government would actually save money by keeping the local air base open."

And Gillibrand said in Buffalo that an even stronger case can be made for the Falls base.

"Particularly in Niagara, those missions cannot be replaced elsewhere," she said.

Panetta has asked Congress to approve a new base-closure commission to decide how to consolidate the nation's numerous military bases. The last two base-closure commissions proposed shuttering the Falls facility but determined campaigns by local residents and federal lawmakers persuaded the commissions to reverse course.

Panetta said the cutbacks and base closures are necessary for the Department of Defense to meet a congressionally imposed target of cutting its budget by $487 billion over the coming decade.

"In this budget environment, we simply cannot sustain infrastructure that is beyond our needs or ability to maintain," he said.

Still, the New York delegation is emphasizing not only the Niagara base's strategic location on the Canadian border as a guard against terrorism, but also its local economic impact.

"The reserve station has an annual direct economic impact of $168 million and over 3,500 jobs in Western New York," the representatives said. "At a time when the president has made economic recovery a top priority, any cuts [to the base] would have a devastating impact on our local community."