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Looming sequestration cuts cause uncertainty locally

TAMPA — For many of MacDill Air Force Base's 3,000 civilian employees, Washington's latest belt-tightening may be quick and painful. They face one-day-a-week furloughs — equivalent to a 20 percent pay cut.

Other Tampa Bay residents may first encounter federal "sequestration'' cuts that took effect Friday when they try to catch a plane in April.

Fans of Airfest will be out of luck this year. MacDill canceled the event late Friday because of budget cuts. Both the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels flying groups have been grounded.

Some people may never discover that beltway brinkmanship deeply affected their lives.

That's because governments and agencies scrambling to deal with sequester's $85 billion cutback say they will try to maintain services to existing clients, while letting waiting lists grow.

"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," said Heidi Rand, director of Head Start in Hernando County.

The program offers preschool classes and child care to low-income families, with 140 children already on a wait list. To avoid booting out current clients, Hernando Head Start may drop 20 days of service, Rand said.

The Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition, which subsidizes child care for poor working families, stands to lose $80,000 a month — enough to serve about 250 children, director James Farrelly said. The agency plans to freeze non-essential spending, new hires and possibly furlough staff, Farrelly said.

Airports, hospitals

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to furlough air traffic controllers and predicted average delays of 44 minutes, including 90-minute peak time delays at major hubs. Furloughs within the Transportation Security Administration will slow down security checkpoints.

The mess is expected to begin in April.

"It will be several weeks before we will see any impacts," Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said.

The sequestration law exempted Social Security and Medicaid. But Medicare will cut payments to hospitals, nursing homes and doctors by 2 percent.

BayCare Health System, which owns hospitals throughout the region, expects to lose about $9 million, CEO Steve Mason said. That's only about one-third of 1 percent of BayCare's revenues, but it follows eight years of Medicaid cuts. And in 2014, the Affordable Care Act will reduce BayCare's Medicare reimbursement another $40 million.

"We will continue to provide care to Medicare patients with sequestration,'' Mason said. But if governments keep cutting back, "the compounding impact of cuts gets us at some point to where we will have look at curtailing services.''

Earlier this week, Debra Shade, head of Pinellas County's Neighborly Care Network, got word that Meals on Wheels and senior congregate dining might lose as much as $200,000 — about one-tenth of the budget.

Neighborly planned to scrounge for donations while letting waiting lists grow.

Schools expect cuts

"Just the threat of sequestration has already disrupted our planning process," said Jeffrey Eakins, director of federal programs for Hillsborough County schools. "It forced us to budget conservatively in how we allocate our money for next year and, to an extent, the remainder of our funds this year."

Federal school funds mainly flow to programs for lower-income children and special education. Hillsborough planned for an $11 million cut but hopes to blunt the effect on classroom activities, Eakins said.

"Unfortunately, the severity of the cuts may make it impossible to achieve that goal."

Expected to lose about $6.2 million, Pinellas County schools will shuck social workers who help at-risk students, decrease training and offer fewer cash incentives to teachers who work in poor schools.

Parents will start noticing the effects in the fall, spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said.

Twelve of the district's 46 poorest schools will lose their federal funding, she said. Others will cut tutoring hours, aftercare, teachers and coaches unless another funding source is found.

Hernando school officials last year set aside 9 percent of a $5.3 million budget for federally funded low-income children.

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

Uncertainty reigns

County and city governments receive various federal grants, but officials this week had little information on sequestration.

"We don't have a real good idea of how we might feel the impacts," said Tom Fesler, who serves as Hillsborough's budget chief. "It's going to take information from our granting agencies, and so far we haven't gotten a lot of communications from them.''

Pinellas officials said the sequester could cost the county a minimum of $794,000 in federal grants, contracts and reimbursements if it stayed in effect a year.

Coast Guard and U.S. Customs agents screen cargo and cruise ship passengers at the Port of Tampa. The impact of sequestration will become more clear next week after discussions with industry representatives, said port spokesman Andrew Fobes.

The 55-member Coast Guard band was due to kick off a free, eight-city tour Sunday at Ruth Eckerd, But the $55,000 tour's price tag is now a luxury, and it was canceled Friday.

The same with Airfest, which typically draws thousands of people and was set for April 6-7.

"We waited until the very last minute kind of hoping for a breakthrough," said Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing. "We just came up against some unfortunate circumstances that won't allow it to happen."

Times staff writers Tony Marrero, Alexandra Zayas, Lisa Gartner, Jessica Vander Velde, Philip Morgan, Stephanie Hayes, Anna Phillips, Marlene Sokol, Lisa Buie, Jamal Thalji, Bill Varian and Bill Levesque contributed to this report.

Looming sequestration cuts cause uncertainty locally 03/01/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 12:24am]

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