The federal budget ax is unlikely to fall for two more years.

But the State of New Jersey isn't waiting for the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission to cut or close its five military bases.

It's hired a Washington lobbying firm - Cassidy & Associates - to assess the economic value and vulnerability of the bases and recommend ways of protecting them.

The firm will be paid $16,000 a month - up to $192,000 for the year - to research Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and other installations as well as their surrounding communities, state officials said.

The contract, announced in February, also calls on Cassidy to create a "statewide strategic action plan" outlining steps that all levels of government should take "to preserve and enhance military installations and facilities."

The bases "have a tremendous economic impact on the state," said Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Patrick L. Daugherty, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

They employ 73,000 military personnel, federal civilian employees, and contractors; add $6.5 billion of wealth to the state's gross domestic product; and create $9.6 billion in business revenues, Daugherty said.

"The governor wants to make sure the bases have a future mission and increase public awareness of the military and its missions, installations, and armories," he said. "He wants to ensure their long-term growth and viability."

Cassidy was awarded the contract over two other firms, said Joseph R. Perone, a spokesman for the state Department of Treasury. It has been an effective defense lobbyist.

The firm's cochairman, Barry Rhoads, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former tax prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, was deputy general counsel to the 1991 BRAC Commission and "worked on every aspect of the first round of base closures, with an emphasis on environmental remediation," according to Cassidy's website.

He was also "instrumental in the establishment of the commission and its operating procedures."

Rhoads did not respond to a message left for him Tuesday, and no one picked up on other calls made to his office.

Even before the state hired the defense lobbyists, it was developing its defense of the bases.

The current fiscal budget, signed by Gov. Christie last July, included $200,000 for the Council on Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs, a body of state officials and citizens who work with the public and private sectors to fight any efforts to close the base and other military installations.

That move followed the formation in May of a separate group, the New Jersey Military Installation Growth and Development Task Force - chaired by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno - to draft strategies for inoculating military sites from elimination.

Other members of the task force include Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, adjutant general for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and former U.S. Rep. James J. Saxton.

Christie's budget for the coming year appropriates an additional $200,000 to protect the state's military installations.

The joint base in Burlington and Ocean Counties has survived five rounds of BRAC - the federal process used to prune the Defense Department. It's likely to face a sixth, since the Defense Department has asked Congress to approve the formation of a BRAC commission in 2017.

One of the major threats faced by New Jersey's military is mission migration, officials said. The joint base has an airlift mission that could be moved to other bases.

Guadagno and other task force members have toured the 60-square-mile joint base and the state's other bases: the 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township; the Coast Guard Station at Cape May; Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County; and the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Monmouth County. They wanted to get a firsthand look at the bases and assess their impact on the surrounding communities.

ecolimore@phillynews.com

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