Coast Guard

Coast Guard ships lay moored a the docks at the U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape May. The Coast Guard has been hurt by federal spending cuts that have reduced its war against drug trafficking, which is waged by cutters like the Dependable and Vigorous home-ported here in Cape May. Concerns are mounting that cuts could increase this year after a recent announcement about defenses spending reductions. Tuesday Feb. 25, 2014. (Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City)

Dale Gerhard

CAPE MAY — Two large Coast Guard cutters are being reassigned from the base on the east side of town to a new port in Virginia, and this will reduce local personnel by 152 people.

But in a few years, the Coast Guard will locate three smaller cutters here that will be manned by 128 people, and these vessels will spend much more time in waters off New Jersey and other mid-Atlantic states.

The Coast Guard said the move is partially due to the poor condition of the World War II-era wooden pier here at the base where the larger cutters tie up.

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“It’s a wooden pier and it’s rapidly deteriorating. It needs over $12 million in repairs,” said Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, a spokesman for Coast Guard Training Center Cape May.

The cutter Vigorous, which has been in Cape May since 1995, will be leaving this summer, and the Dependable, here since 2000, is leaving in 2015. Both are 210-foot medium endurance cutters that mostly patrol in distant waters, as far south as the Caribbean for drug interdiction missions. The long-range plan is replace these vessels with cutters that would draw too much water to come into Cape May Harbor, Brzuska said.

The personnel change does not include family members who will also be lost, and the inevitable reduction in students has drawn some concerns from officials at Cape May Elementary School. The school gets half its students from the base.

“It will have an impact on the school. We are working as hard as we can to make sure the impact of the transfer is as minimal as possible,” Brzuska said.

It is expected to be a short-term problem that could hurt school enrollment for just a few years. The three smaller cutters, each 154 feet long, are coming in each federal fiscal year budget, including 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The fast-response cutters will require 128 people, so this will help cancel out the loss of 152 people from the larger cutters. Brzuska said the deficit in Coast Guard personnel will be highest in 2016 and 2017, but will be mostly a wash by 2018.

The Coast Guard will allow personnal assigned to the Dependable and the Vigorous to keep their families in base housing in Cape May as one way to reduce impacts. These cutters are far offshore for six months of the year, so it is not a job where spouses come home each night.

“We have some families that will stay local and commute back and forth (to Virginia Beach) as the ship comes in and out. This is a good community with great people and great schools. We want to make this transition as easy as possible on Coast Guard families as well,” Brzuska said.

“That would definitely be an advantage to us,” said School Business Administrator John Thomas.

The school has 169 students and 85 come from the base. The base also supplies students to Lower Cape May Regional High School, but there is less impact there because of a larger student body. The elementary school gets federal aid for the Coast Guard students, $610,000 this year.

Thomas has talked to the Coast Guard and was encouraged that any vacancies in Coast Guard housing at the base could be filled by personnel renting private homes, often in towns outside Cape May. The base has about 1,000 full-time military and civilian workers. Besides the nation’s only recruit training center, the base has 12 other operations, including a small-boat station, aids to navigation team, a VA Clinic and many others.

Thomas said Coast Guard housing, which supplies his students, is usually at capacity and some live off base. Thomas said he “is hoping” any base vacancies will be filled.

Thomas is also concerned that the new cutters are not even constructed yet. The Coast Guard has recently had cutbacks in federal funding. Jason Galanes, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who sits on a Coast Guard subcommittee, said money has already been appropriated for the vessels. Brzuska said two of the vessels have already been ordered.

Brzuska said the Coast Guard is placing five of the new 154-foot “fast-response cutters” in the mid-Atlantic, including the three here, and this will increase patrol hours in mid-Atlantic waters by an estimated 8,900 hours per year, from 3,600 to 12,500 hours.

“It’s good news. You’ll have a more regional Coast Guard presence here. They will stay right in the Fifth Coast Guard District that goes from the North Carolina-South Carolina border to just south of New York City,” Brzuska said.

There are also plans to demolish the pier that dates to when the U.S. Navy had a base here.

“The wooden dock will be torn down. Plans are in place to build a new support facility for the fast-response cutters. We’re investing $21 million over five years in the rebuilding of that dock,” Brzuska said.

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