A pretty penny to house top brass

Pentagon report suggests a few places to tighten belts

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Marine Gen. John F. Kelly works in a fortress-like headquarters near the Miami airport. Starting this fall, he will live in Casa Sur, an elegant house with a pool and gardens on one of the area's swankiest streets.

The five-bedroom residence, across the street from the famed Biltmore Golf Course, is provided rent-free to Kelly as head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The cost to the government? $160,000 a year, plus $402,000 for renovations and security improvements now underway.

Casa Sur is one of hundreds of high-end houses, villas and mansions where senior generals and admirals are billeted, according to a Pentagon report.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the Air Force four-star who commands NATO, gets a 15,000-square-foot, 19th-century chateau in Belgium. Lt. Gen. Steven A. Hummer, head of Marine Forces Reserve, enjoys a 19th-century plantation house in New Orleans listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and their deputies inhabit historic quarters in and around Washington -- all staffed with chefs, drivers, gardeners and security teams.

The perks for top military brass, a Pentagon tradition, are under increasing scrutiny in Congress at a time when budget reductions and the mandatory spending cuts known as the sequester have forced the Pentagon to cut services, close facilities, cancel training and missions, and furlough 680,000 civilian workers.

"There is no good news," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told hundreds of defense workers at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina on Wednesday after one woman, who was forced to take 11 days without pay, said she had to take a second job to support her children. "It breaks my heart."

In the annual appropriations bill for military construction approved by a House committee last month, lawmakers criticized the Pentagon for the "excessive cost" of maintaining "large and aging" homes and for the "apparent unwillingness on the part of the (military) services to seek less expensive alternatives."

All active-duty military personnel and their families receive free housing on bases or allowances to defray the cost of renting or buying in nearby communities. It costs the Pentagon $1.5 billion a year.

Generals and admirals say they need large houses with high security -- as well as cooks and gardeners -- because they often host visiting dignitaries or preside at ceremonial events. Keeping pricey properties makes fiscal sense, they argue, because the Pentagon either already owns them or would waste money finding a suitable rental every time a senior officer arrives.

Changes are under way.

Some senior officers have quarters so expensive they violate the military's generous rules, according to the Pentagon report. Three officers assigned to the NATO naval base in Naples, Italy, for example, exceed allowable housing expenses for their jobs, the report says.

Rear Adm. Robert Burke, commander of Submarine Group 8, occupies Villa de Lorio, a 6,600-square-foot villa in Naples leased for $172,000 a year. But a 2012 Navy policy says only officers in "high risk billets," can have high-cost leases -- and a submarine group commander on the Mediterranean doesn't qualify. As a result, the lease will be terminated, the report said, but not until May "when the current occupant's tour is over."

Leases also will be canceled next year for Villa Anna, home to the commander of Navy Region Europe, and Villa Maria, residence for the operations director of Allied Joint Force Command.

The Pentagon will give up Villa Nike, a 12,000-square-foot Naples residence, because "water damage, structural concerns and an aging electrical system" mean maintenance costs $220,000 a year, the report said.

But that still leaves hundreds of high-priced homes in the Pentagon inventory, many of them at bases in and around Washington.

At Fort Myer, on a bluff in Virginia overlooking Washington, a row of stately red brick Victorians is reserved for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force and other senior officers.

The sequester has forced cancellation of Tuesday swim lessons at the Fort Myer Officers Club pool, and other base facilities are closed one day a week. But otherwise the budget cuts have not pinched much, base spokeswoman Mary Ann Hodges said.

To save money, the military has moved in recent decades to privatize base housing. But the services have clung to some of the most desirable real estate for top officers.

The 57-page Pentagon study -- which cost $320,000 -- examined 32 such homes. It deemed 10 to be the "most advantageous alternative" to other available housing, and described 14 others as "reasonable" choices, though it said the services were evaluating options to further cut costs of the 14.

The Pentagon is "making progress toward reducing" senior officer housing costs, the study concluded. It said the least expensive option -- giving generals and admirals allowances to rent homes -- is not feasible in many cases because of security concerns and the need to install secure communications.