Sequestration will hit the youngest and oldest Floridians

Melissa Cormeny helps client Stephanie Fish on Monday at Directions for Living, a Pinellas agency anticipating bad news.
Melissa Cormeny helps client Stephanie Fish on Monday at Directions for Living, a Pinellas agency anticipating bad news.
Published Feb. 26, 2013

The federal budget needs to be reduced, Gov. Rick Scott said Monday, but automatic cuts scheduled to start Friday will mean disastrous job losses in the defense industry and could threaten Florida's response to natural disasters.

"The impacts on Florida's military installations and defense industries will be severe under the meat hammer of sequestration,'' Scott said.

If Congress does not forge a quick compromise, about 40,000 defense workers could lose their jobs, with spending dropping about $1 billion, he said.

Nearly 1,000 Florida National Guard employees would face furloughs for 20 percent of the year, potentially disastrous as spring wildfires and summer hurricanes strike.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are exempt from sequestration. But many other social programs will face cuts, from subsidized child care and Head Start for the youngest Floridians to Meals on Wheels for seniors, according to a state-by-state White House report.

Individual programs in the Tampa Bay area have not yet received details about how they will fare. Cuts nationwide will average about 5 per cent, but that could vary depending on how state and federal governments actually dole out the money.

Since state and county financing also underwrites many social programs, the federal component may represent a relatively small dent.

Florida's elementary and secondary schools, for example, stand to lose $85.6 million under sequestration. By comparison, Hillsborough schools alone have an almost $3 billion annual budget alone.

But the federal cuts will still hurt, said people who run the programs, because they follow a string of lean years.

Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations at the Florida School Boards Association, noted that federal stimulus funds have recently expired and state spending has dropped under Scott.

Meanwhile, Florida's public school population has risen by more than 50,000.

Because some services are federally mandated — like programs for disabled children — districts might have to cut back more in optional programs like art and music.

"In other communities, it will mean the closing of a school," Melton said.

Here is a rundown of Florida cuts outlined by the White House.

Teachers and schools

$54.5 million for primary and secondary schools, plus another $31.1 million for children with disabilities. This represents 1,130 fewer teachers and aides, the White House said.

6,250 poor students will lose direct aid for college tuition and 1,700 will lose work study jobs.

About $3.8 million will be cut in Florida. In Pinellas County, that translates to almost 9,500 fewer meals in 20 congregate dining centers and almost 9,500 fewer hot meals delivered to home-bound adults. Neighborly Care Network, which runs the programs, will try to keep existing clients, but the cuts will extend the wait list and possibly reduce services, president Debra Shade said.

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"We'll evaluate people's ability to cook and whether they have a caregiver in the house and maybe see if they can get by with three meals a week instead of five. Or maybe we won't give them frozen meals for the weekend,'' Shade said. "Many of them already have malnutrition and it's beyond what you or I can comprehend.''

In the past, big corporations have stepped in to fill gaps, Shade said. "My job is to find a new $191,000.''

2,700 fewer children served in Florida.

1,600 fewer children served. Hillsborough's $500,000 cut represents services to about 100 poor children, said Dave McGerald, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition. That agency stopped taking on new clients two months ago, in part because expected cuts.

"Hillsborough County has never terminated services to children and we are not going to start now,'' McGerald said.

But the 4,000-child waiting list will grow longer. Most are the kids of working parents who cannot afford licensed day care, he said, and may have to use "unlicensed, underground care.''

A friend or neighbor might do fine, McGerald said, "but they haven't been background screened and that could very easily put the child in danger.''

Florida will lose about $5.2 million for clean air and water programs, plus $1.1 million in grants for fish and wildlife protection.

About 373,000 severely mentally ill adults and emotionally disturbed children will lose community-based services nationwide.

But the true impact will be far greater, said April Lott, president of Directions for Living in Clearwater. Studies show that when mentally ill people forgo treatment, their parents, children and spouses are more likely to miss school, lose jobs and succumb to addictive behaviors.

A 5 percent cut for Lott's agency translates roughly to 200 fewer clients, she said. They may end up in "a much costlier criminal justice system, inpatient system and hospital emergency rooms,'' Lott said. "Their needs don't just get put on the shelf if the funding isn't there.''