The Rock Island Arsenal island from 3500 feet. (John Schultz / Quad-City Times)

John Schultz

With automatic budget cuts looming, U.S. Army officials are getting more detailed about the actions they’re taking to prepare for them. A five-page memo from Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno has ordered an immediate civilian hiring freeze, the termination of temporary workers consistent with their missions and curtailed travel. They also directed a move toward reducing base operating costs.

The memo also outlined a series of other actions to be taken, noting they all should minimize risk to readiness and be reversible in the event the budget cuts are avoided.

The precise impact on the Rock Island Arsenal, one of the area’s largest employers, is unclear. But the base operating cuts, if they were to occur, would come on top of orders a little more than a year ago that the Arsenal garrison trim its workforce by about 75 positions.

The garrison oversees base operations, and its current civilian workforce is at 238 people. Much of the base operations work is done by a contractor.

This latest memo provides more detail than in the past about how the Army is preparing for budget cuts, but it still leaves major questions unanswered about what might happen locally.

A garrison spokesman referred inquiries up the chain of command.

“We honestly don’t know,” Mary DeSmet, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 15, said Thursday. “The employees are certainly concerned, but at this point, we have a mission to complete, so we are continuing to work and hope for the best.”

The automatic budget cuts, initially set in motion in the summer of 2011, are scheduled to take place March 1.

They were to have begun at the start of the year, but President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to the delay as part of a deal they reached to extend some of the Bush-era tax cuts.

The spending reductions over 10 years would be roughly divided between domestic programs and the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2013, the cuts would amount to $45 billion for defense accounts.

The memo, which is dated Wednesday, raises the prospect of civilian furloughs but says they would be taken only as a “last resort.”

Government Executive magazine reported last week that a prominent defense analyst, Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said unless Congress avoids the cuts, rotating monthly furloughs would hit the entire civilian workforce.

A letter from the joint chiefs of staff to Congress earlier this week said the military is preparing for the potential to furlough up to nearly 800,000 defense civilians, including those in essential functions such as maintenance, logistics and contracting.

Among the specific steps outlined in the new memo is an order that the Army Materiel Command, the higher headquarters for many of the units on Arsenal Island, plan to cancel equipment maintenance and restoration orders in the third and fourth quarters. The Arsenal’s Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center does some restoration work, but it’s unclear how it might be affected.

A spokesman for the JMTC also referred questions higher up.

The memo ordered curtailing training events not related to readiness, as well as conferences. And it directed units to limit administrative expenses and supply purchases that aren’t essential.

It also ordered a review of contracts for possible cost savings, among other steps.

“Given the magnitude of our budgetary uncertainty, the Army must act now to reduce our expenditure rate and mitigate budget execution risks in order to avoid even more serious future budget shortfalls,” the memo said.