Navy Ships Sent Elsewhere for Repairs Leads to Salvo from Politicians

Sailors prepare to moor the Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Zephyr (PC 8) to a barge at Naval Station Mayport following a four-month deployment, May 14, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)
Sailors prepare to moor the Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Zephyr (PC 8) to a barge at Naval Station Mayport following a four-month deployment, May 14, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)

From routine maintenance to engine overhauls, plenty of companies in Northeast Florida are ready to offer the necessary services when the military needs work done. So when that work goes elsewhere, it's no surprise politicians get involved.

It starts when a hot topic -- say, ship repair -- drops on the plate of a senator or congressman. But then the process often plays out like a game of tag: Here's a letter from Florida. Tag, you're it. Now it's your turn to send a letter back to us.

Recently the Navy decided to send three ships based at Naval Station Mayport to other places for maintenance. That prompted a letter from U.S. senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and U.S. Rep. John Rutherford (R-Jacksonville) because, according to them, the work could have been done here so the sailors could be with their families and the ship repair facilities could stay busy.

When the lawmakers learned the patrol craft ships USS Zephyr, USS Shamal and USS Tornado were getting maintenance work done somewhere else it was time to start the process. On April 26, they sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer.

"The Jacksonville ship repair industrial base has weathered years of reduced ship counts and it seems counter intuitive to exacerbate the situation by removing ships from the home port when competition exists," the letter said.

The letter said moving the ships to other locations for maintenance appears to be against the law based on Title 10 of the U.S. Code as it relates to maintenance contracts of Navy vessels.

That specific section of the law states the secretary of the Navy needs to determine if there is adequate competition in the vessel's home port before soliciting a contract in other places. If there is adequate competition, the secretary is supposed to first offer the contract to the repair facilities in the area, according to the law.

"These moves appear to be a potential violation of law and are detrimental to the quality of the life of the sailors and their families," the letter to the secretary said. "After overseas deployments and training exercises away from their families, sailors rely upon the period in home port as a time to reconnect."

The letter pointed out policy changes at the Navy's Southeast Regional Maintenance Center are what led to the ships going to other places for the work. It also said when the proper amount of competition in the area was established, the regional maintenance center changed the period of maintenance from less than 10 months to more than 10 months -- a move that altered the vessel's short-term maintenance status.

"Our office recently spoke with the Jacksonville Area Ship Repair Association, along with other stakeholders, to discuss the history of these patrol craft maintenance contracts," said Olivia Perez-Cubas of Rubio's office.

She said BAE Systems Jacksonville Ship Repair, General Dynamics NASSCO-Mayport and North Florida Shipyards Inc. are all capable ship repair facilities in the area that could have completed the work, but they were skipped over for contracts at facilities outside Northeast Florida.

The Times-Union reached out to all three facilities asking for comment and heard back only from BAE.

Todd Hooks is the general manager of BAE Systems Jacksonville Ship Repair, and he's also the president of the Jacksonville Area Ship Repair Association.

Karl D. Johnson, a spokesman for BAE, said he could get in touch with Hooks to possibly comment on how the whole situation involving the legislators got started, but he wanted to hear the response from the secretary of the Navy before he weighed in on how the process began.

All three legislators were still waiting for that response Friday. It had not arrived by the end of business, said staff members from the offices.

"Once a letter is received, normal operating procedure is there are five days to respond," said Lt. Joshua Kelsey, deputy public affairs officer for the secretary of the Navy.

He said Spencer reads every letter he receives, and members of his staff immediately start looking into information on the topic so they can respond as soon as possible.

"It's his response, and he signs it," Kelsey said.

But although those five days to respond are normal procedure, it doesn't mean he has to give his final response to the letter within that time. If for some reason there is an example that needs more than five days, Spencer can send an interim response to give him more time to look into the issue, Kelsey said.

The letter on the Mayport ship repairs was one of those cases.

Kelsey said an interim response was given May 4, which is sufficient based on the five-day time frame for a response because that clock starts when the letter is received, not when the letter is dated. He said the final response was sent Wednesday.

"We typically consider the responses private correspondence, but you may be able to get it from a member of the delegation's staff," Kelsey said in an email.

Those staff members hadn't heard anything by Friday, and the ship repair facilities will have to wait even longer to find out why the work was sent elsewhere.

This article is written by Joe Daraskevich from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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