Leadership Lessons: End-of-year spending; fumble or touchdown

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- It happens every year, millions of dollars spent within the last couple of weeks of September. Fiscal year 2014 was no different. In fact, it was more shocking than previous years in that Team Grand Forks more than tripled typical end of year spending. How can this be? After all we started the year under sequestration, encountered a partial government shutdown, and had there not been relief provided by Congress, we would have been forced to at least consider furloughing our civilian Airmen again. Not a great outlook just 12 months ago, right? Combine this with the sacrifices made by Airmen every day and one could easily assume we're spending frivolously at the end of the year. That makes the job of the Comptroller, Contracting Officers, Budget Analysts and Resource Advisors all the more critical. Our end-of-year planning begins day one, so any risk we carry throughout the year can be recapitalized with fallout. I will tell you we don't waste money... we cannot afford to do so.

To set the stage, let's review where we were just 12-24 months ago. The Budget Control Act (or sequestration as its better known) began in fiscal year 2012; this slashed federal spending. In fiscal year 2013, sequestration equated to a 10 percent cut across the board... that's approximately $60 billion to the DoD, and about $10 billion to the Air Force! With very little time to adjust planning, the Armed Services were forced to apply cuts to almost every program; investment accounts such as the KC-46, readiness accounts, flying hours, aircraft maintenance and base infrastructure. These cuts greatly impacted our mission effectiveness, affecting almost every weapon system the Air Force operates. In addition to weapon systems, we saw impacts to readiness and aircrew training, endured civilian furloughs and reduced end-strength, and witnessed cuts to various base support programs.

At the local level, sequestration impacted our readiness training, delayed infrastructure modernization and modifications, and stopped routine base maintenance. Fortunately, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act providing relief from sequestration for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 while they continue to work a long-term solution. Realize that while we didn't have this relief when the year started we were aware of the potential, so we began posturing months ago for a possible end-of-year surplus of funds. However, even with the relief eventually provided by Congress, reduced funding levels forced the base to make difficult decisions along the way. This led to the closure of our Community Activity Center, a reduction in hours at the base library and pool, cancellation of our intramural sports referee contract, restructuring of our base grounds and custodial contracts, and very careful but deliberate infrastructure and vehicle maintenance efforts. None of these were easy decisions, but what we wanted to avoid at all costs were impacts to Airman support operations like the DFAC, and impacts to readiness or our ability to support the warfighter.

Budget cuts caused by sequestration were severe. However, budget cuts are not a new concept. Before sequestration the Air Force referred to cuts as "efficiencies and enhancements", then "tail to tooth" re-alignments. Comptrollers, Contracting Officers and Resource Advisors have been doing this for years, so we've gotten pretty good at prioritizing requirements and identifying risk to ensure money is being spent wisely, but also to ensure mission impact is minimized. Now don't get me wrong; sequestration definitely had an impact to the Air Force and to Grand Forks Air Force Base. Ask any civilian on base and they will tell you how sequestration impacted them personally.

However, the fact we can start a year with the ability to only fund requirements deemed critical to mission accomplishment, and finish the year funding just about every requirement the base could generate shouldn't imply questionable or wasteful spending as it did 10-20 years ago. Approximately 90 percent of end-of-year spending is approved by MAJCOM, with requirements being vetted amongst functional experts and going through multiple reviews. What end-of-year spending equates to in today's fiscal environment is the culmination of the entire Resource Management Team tirelessly preparing, advocating and defending unit requirements. When it comes time to execute end-of-year requirements, they score a touchdown!

Military spending will continue to be scrutinized and debated by higher headquarters and by Congress for years to come. Our job is to balance risk and mission requirements, and to ensure we make every dollar count. These funds are taxpayer dollars after all, we have a responsibility to protect them and spend them wisely.