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Federal budget cuts would be felt throughout the community

Hot meals for seniors, Head Start slots and housing vouchers for poor families are among the places Hernando County could feel the blade of the federal budget hatchet.

As today's deadline for Congress to act to prevent $85 billion in cuts approached, local officials braced for uncertain but likely painful effects on programs that help bolster the safety net for residents.

"As a county, we're very concerned," said Veda Ramirez, the county's health and human services manager. "We know these things are expected to be impacted, but how much we're not sure."

That uncertainty adds to stress levels, program administrators contacted by the Times said this week.

Mid-Florida Community Services has been told to prepare for as much as a 10 percent hit to the federal funds the nonprofit agency uses to serve and deliver hot meals to the elderly in Hernando and Pasco counties, said George Popovich, director of senior services. The program's total budget is $1.5 million, which helped pay for about 78,000 meals in Hernando alone last year.

More than 200 people are already on a waiting list for the Meals on Wheels program, and any cut would almost certainly cause that list to grow, Popovich said. And it would likely halt plans to open another eat-in site in Spring Hill.

"The people who are going to be affected are the people who need that social support and that sustenance," he said. "That's what we're struggling with, and we'll face more struggles if funds are reduced."

Mid-Florida also runs Head Start programs for more than 970 children in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties. Of those, 282 are currently enrolled at two sites in Brooksville and Spring Hill, said director Heidi Rand. The federally funded program offers preschool, child care and other services for children from low-income families, as well as for disabled children from families of all incomes.

Rand said she has been told to prepare for a funding cut of between 8 percent and 12 percent, but it's unclear when and how that reduction would come. Mid-Florida's roughly $9 million annual Head Start grant started Oct. 1.

"The very last thing we want to do is dis-enroll children, so we just have to look at every other way we can possibly cut our expenses," Rand said.

That could include trimming hours of service and as many as 20 days from the school year.

Head Start currently runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with extended care from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The program follows the Hernando school district's 180-day calendar, but the Head Start grant only mandates 160 days per school year.

Those reductions would be tough for working families trying to make ends meet, but they are a better alternative to reducing the number of slots available, especially since 140 children are currently on the waiting list in Hernando alone, Rand said.

"It's the lesser of two evils," she said.

• • •

Hernando school officials started preparing last year for the potential cuts to Title I funding, used for programs at 10 schools with high numbers of low-income students.

Eric Williams, the district's director of school improvement, said the district set aside 9 percent of the $5.3 million Title I budget in case the worst-case scenario became a reality.

"We've had the money, thinking we can't spend it, but we were hoping (lawmakers) would come to some kind of agreement," Williams said.

The dollars pay for after-school tutoring, summer school programs and additional staffers such as instructional coaches and parent educators, among a host of other programs.

The potential cuts come as the district plans to expand Title I services next year to Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill, one of the largest schools in the district. Title I money is allocated on a per-pupil basis, so that means a smaller pot of money would have to be divided up among 11 schools.

The hit would come for the 2013-14 school year. The district would not cut specific programs, Williams said. Rather, the reduction would be spread evenly across all of the schools, and administrators at each site would decide how to deal with the loss.

The budget cuts would also affect funding for exceptional student education programs, services for students learning English, and professional development opportunities for teachers.

"Forty percent of our total funding as a district is derived from federal sources, so 10 percent of that constitutes a pretty deep cut to what we use to run things around here," Williams said.

• • •

The cuts could mean a nearly $215,000 hit to the pot of money the Hernando County Housing Authority uses to provide rental assistance vouchers to low-income families, said executive director Don Singer.

That translates to 30 fewer vouchers than the 390 the authority is budgeted to provide, Singer said.

"The bottom line is we've got 30 vacancies where we could be helping 30 families, but we would not be able to," he said.

The agency is currently providing 366 vouchers, six more than would be available if the cuts become a reality. If that happens, Singer said, he's hopeful the authority could meet the budget when families leave the program through attrition.

In addition, Singer has been told to prepare for a $65,000 reduction to the roughly $265,000 budgeted to run the office for the year.

The potential effects on public health services at the county level are unclear.

Hernando County Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis directed the Times to the Florida Department of Health, which did not provide any specifics.

But the county Health Department relies on several federal grants, including one to provide primary health care services.

The department also oversees the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. According to the White House, some 600,000 women nationwide would be dropped from the WIC program.

"Whatever comes down the line, we'll do the best we can to provide the services to our residents with the resources we have," Ellis said.

• • •

In addition to programs for needy residents, the cuts could directly affect the paychecks of National Guard personnel.

Nearly 1,000 Florida National Guard employees statewide would face furloughs for 20 percent of the year. In Hernando County, that means 37 technicians at the Army Aviation Support Facility on Spring Hill Drive would be furloughed for one day a week for the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year, said Master Sgt. Thomas Kielsbasa, a guard spokesman.

Fewer paid workdays for the instructors, mechanics and flight operations specialists who support UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters would raise concerns about readiness, Kielbasa said, and the impact would extend beyond the armory gates.

"It's not going to affect just that one person," Kielbasa said. "It's going to affect their families and the community they put money into."

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes and @hernandotimes on Twitter.

Federal budget cuts would be felt throughout the community 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 8:16pm]
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