WASHINGTON – Profits from alcohol and tobacco sales could keep the Topsham-based commissary at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station open until at least September 2012 and perhaps indefinitely, says Dem. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

A Pingree proposal designed to extend the life of the popular Brunswick area commissary, which sells low-cost groceries, was included late Wednesday night in a broader defense bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee.

Pingree, a member of the committee, wrote an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act – a sweeping defense policy bill that is expected to pass the full House within a month or so – permitting the Pentagon to set up a pilot-program to keep commissaries at closed military bases open for an additional year beyond the time when they are slated to be shuttered. The pilot program also would allow the commissaries to sell alcohol and tobacco products as a method of increasing profits.

Pingree, along with GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have been fighting to keep the Brunswick commissary open. It was originally slated to be closed in March, but legislation pushed through last year by the Maine delegation kept it open until at least Sept. 15.

The thousands of active duty military members and veterans in the area – as well as their dependents and others – have come to rely on the low-cost items at the commissary, Maine lawmakers say.
“The Navy needs to keep the commissary open,” Pingree said in a statement early today. “There are so many active duty and retired military personnel in the area that deserve and depend on the low-cost groceries they can buy at the commissary.  Access to a commissary is part of their benefits—it’s something they earned.”

Pingree’s legislation doesn’t specifically name the Topsham-based commissary – which is part of the Brunswick Naval Air Station scheduled for formal closure May 31 – but rather refers to commissaries located at military bases shut down by the base closure process.

“Clearly we wrote this amendment with Brunswick in mind and as soon as it gets passed into law we’ll demand that the Pentagon apply it to the commissary in Maine,” Pingree said.

Pingree’s hope is that after a year of increased sales – and profits – through the sale of alcohol and tobacco the Navy will decide to keep the commissary open indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Collins and Snowe this week were making their own push to keep the commissary open.

The senators jointly released a report by the Government Accountability Office – one requested by them – that they said demonstrates that the criteria used by the Department of Defense to determine whether commissaries should be closed “are not clear” and that the Pentagon needs to make those standards more clear.

Collins and Snowe have sent a letter to Clifford L. Stanley, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, urging him not to close any commissaries until the Defense Department carries out a review of its closure criteria in light of the GAO report.

“It is troubling to us that the Department has relied upon undefined terms [for general and economic criteria] in previous assessments to justify the closure of the Topsham commissary, particularly when evidence indicates that it performs better than many other commissaries,” Collins and Snowe wrote in their letter to Stanley.

“With more than 10,000 eligible beneficiaries in the immediate region, DOD should not even be considering eliminating access to a commissary in the Brunswick-Topsham area.  It is simply unacceptable for the Department to be making what amount to arbitrary decisions to close such an important benefit to our service members and veterans,” Snowe added in a statement this week.