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Nelson: Why is this rent so high?

The senator wants investigations into why the United States pays so much over market value to house service members outside military bases.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published June 7, 2003

TAMPA - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Friday requested a congressional investigation into apartment rentals for military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base and other bases nationwide.

In a letter to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the Florida Democrat said the military "may be paying significantly more for apartments in the Tampa Bay area than the market value" to house personnel on temporary assignment at MacDill.

In a separate letter, Nelson has asked the Pentagon to examine the issue as well.

"Although individual service members are protected through government reimbursement," Nelson wrote, "housing contractors unfettered by adequate competition arguably can fleece the taxpayers."

In some cases, military personnel assigned to MacDill have paid as much as $3,600 a month for a furnished three-bedroom apartment, the St. Petersburg Times reported Friday. Hundreds of military personnel are paying rents far above market value for apartments and are reimbursed by the government.

The military signs agreements with apartment brokers and individual apartment complexes. The rents are calculated using the military per diem for housing, which varies around the country and is $93 a day in Tampa.

"Obviously, a premium must be charged for the convenience of service members on temporary duty not knowing exactly how long they will be staying somewhere," Nelson wrote to the GAO. "However, I strongly believe that we have an obligation to the taxpayers to ensure that they aren't being taken advantage of during a time of war."

Capt. Ken Hoffman, a MacDill spokesman, referred calls seeking comment to the secretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Rob Koon referred a reporter to the GAO.

"I don't have anything for you," Koon said.

Nelson, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the GAO to determine whether there is price gouging within the military temporary housing system and whether there are steps in place to avoid abusive business practices.

The senator said in an interview that his goal is to support the military and protect taxpayers.

"If this is a problem nationwide," he said, "we hope to save the taxpayer an awful lot of money."

In Tampa, Mayor Pam Iorio urged landlords to stop the practice immediately and wondered why they charge the military so much. She supports the investigations sought by Nelson.

"It does need to be looked into," Iorio said. "It was disturbing to me that rents are so high above market."

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said he thought MacDill had been working with the city of Tampa to provide affordable housing to the military. If landlords are charging military personnel above-market rent, Davis said he also would support an investigation.

"It's a waste of taxpayer money," he said.

Davis said the military's budget already is strained because of the needs of active duty and retired personnel and because of the war in Iraq.

David Williams, a spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, said MacDill and the landlords share the blame for the above-market rents. He said he was not aware of a similar problem at other military installations.

Within the government, Williams said there is no incentive to pay below per diem rates.

If the government budgets money, he said, somebody will spend it rather than risk facing budget cuts the following year.

"The unfortunate thing is that taxpayers are not even considered in the debate," Williams said. "This has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Taxpayers are getting a raw deal."

One-bedroom furnished units in some apartment complexes near MacDill, for example, can rent to the military for up to $2,883 a month.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the buildup began for the war on terror, hundreds of reservists and other active military personnel have been dispatched to MacDill. But the sprawling base does not have enough room to house everyone.

The MacDill Inn on the base has about 300 rooms and is often full. The daily rate ranges from $12 to $26, or between $360 and $780 a month.

Within the military, MacDill is unique because it houses two unified commands. The base is home to the U.S. Central Command, which directed the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and to the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the nation's commando units.

The apartment rental prices came to light as the Times reported recently about delays in reimbursing Army reservists who charge their rent on government-issued credit cards.

- Paul de la Garza can be reached at 813-226-3375 or delagarza@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 7, 2003, 01:48:25]


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