Sequester’s effects felt at local level

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 10:36 AM

From Fourth of July fireworks at Fort Bragg to public school employees and a home for troubled children, the federal sequester has already affected the area.

Several days ago, the Washington Post published an article with the headline: “They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly, they were wrong.” Two reporters examined 48 claims officials from the Obama administration had made about the sequester — the political term for across-the-board federal budget cuts — which predicted doom and gloom. They reported that 11 predictions had come true, 23 hadn’t, and 13 won’t be known until later.

Previous reporting by The Herald also found that locals thought the administration may have been bluffing on some aspects of the cuts. After the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the sequester would force him to furlough meat inspectors, for example, many farmers and agriculture officials in Chatham and Lee counties told The Herald in February they didn’t believe that would ever actually happen. It didn’t.

Still, however, the sequester has caused changes and headaches locally. Programs like the county’s Hillcrest Youth Center have been cut, and Lee County Finance Director Lisa Minter said more cuts could still come. The county has also already lost about $40,000 in rebates on bonds it took out for construction at Lee County High School, Minter said, although it did receive most of its rebates.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much sequestration will harm the county’s finances and services, Minter said. Some things that get cut on the federal level could be paid for by the state, but she said there’s no way of knowing because neither the federal nor state governments have passed their budgets yet. The county’s public health, social services, senior services and youth services departments receive regular federal funding, she said, and the sheriff’s office and library system sometimes receive federal grants.

Budgetary uncertainty has also hit Lee County Schools, with officials recently approving tentative spending of no more than 85 percent of what the district received from the state and federal governments last year. No one has been laid off yet, the district’s human resources director Glenda Jones said, although 31 teaching assistants with temporary contracts were told they wouldn’t be offered the job again next year, pending a higher-than-expected budget. There are an additional 18 teaching assistant spots that weren’t filled last year and are also tentative for next year depending on funding, she said.

“We have been fortunate in not having to implement a reduction in force so far this year,” Jones wrote in an email. “However, we still do not have a budget from the state, so we are not sure how this will impact our teacher assistant allotments.”

Furthermore, the N.C. Senate’s version of the state budget would require Lee County to eliminate more than 40 teaching positions if it becomes law, and it’s still unclear exactly how the federal budget will affect the district, since the federal fiscal year starts in October instead of July, when the state and local fiscal years begin. Much of Lee County Schools’ federal funding goes to the elementary schools, all of which qualify for funding for low-income schools.

North Carolina as a whole would lose $25.4 million in K-12 funding, according to the White House’s predictions, including cuts of 350 teacher and teaching assistant positions. The administration also predicted an additional $16.8 million in cuts to programs for disabled students in the state, including the loss of 200 staff for those programs.

And because there are three different budget proposals being debated in North Carolina right now — one from the Senate, one from the House and one from Gov. Pat McCrory — it’s still unclear whether the state would compensate for federal cuts.

Minter said concerns about state and federal funding were why the Hillcrest Youth Center, which had a mission to give shelter, care and counseling to homeless, runaway, at-risk or court-involved young people in Lee County, had to shut down. It received federal, state and local funding, she said, but couldn’t be run on local funds alone. Minter said that same issue was also why, when the sequester cut the Enrichment Center’s funding for low-cost lunches, home delivery meals and the Gay 90s celebration, county officials felt they couldn’t step in to help and instead left the Enrichment Center to seek out private donations — which it did end up receiving.

“You have to be careful,” Minter said. “Because if you ever pick [the cut funding] up, the feds and the state could say, ‘Well, you have that permanently now.’ It’s a fine balancing line.”

Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, said he read the Washington Post article and agreed that the sequester’s bark was worse than its bite. Still, he said, the sequester hasn’t been entirely inconsequential — it’s just that many of the cuts are difficult to see directly.

For instance, Joyce said one of his neighbors works at Fort Bragg and told him his unit has 12 open positions for which no one will be hired. Although there weren’t technically any layoffs, Joyce said, the effect — fewer paychecks, which leads to less consumer spending, which he said accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s economy — is the same.

“At some point, there were people in those jobs, but now the sequester won’t allow them to be filled,” he said. “They’ve permanently gone away.”