Sequestration may leave some Florida agencies with uncertain future

Bradenton HeraldFebruary 28, 2013 

MANATEE -- Uncertainty was the word Wednesday as the Friday deadline for $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts crept closer.

Some local officials, whose agencies depend on federal funds, had already planned for the possibility of cuts and did not foresee serious problems.

Others expected projects paid for with federal monies would simply wait or be postponed, while still others hoped for a resolution in Washington, D.C. that would end the battle over "sequestration" -- budget cuts triggered by a deficit-reduction rule from 2011.

Democrats and Republicans advocated different remedies, with the former saying it is a matter of revenue and selected spending reductions, while the GOP calling it a deficit problem that could be solved with spending cuts alone.

Meanwhile, local officials were scrambling.

"The federal funding coming into Manatee County government is largely grants that are dedicated to capital improvements for things like community buildings and other CDBG projects, affordable housing, new MCAT buses and repairs, etc.," said Nick Azzara, the county's information outreach coordinator. "If sequestration comes to pass, many of these projects will simply have to wait or will be postponed indefinitely."

One example of a county agency that could be affected was Manatee County Area Transit, which receives about $3.5 million in Federal Transit Administration grants each year, he said.

The money goes to reimburse the transit agency for capital expenses, such as new buses and bus maintenance, passenger shelters and other passenger amenities, Azzara said.

Community Development Block Grants fund about $1.5 million in capital improvements, including such things as road resurfacing, street lights, sidewalks and drainage improvements, according to Cheri Coryea, director of the county's Neighborhood Services Department.

Another $450,000 each year goes toward affordable housing services to the needy, she said.

"The programs that we have in place for this year have already been chosen, and funds encumbered, so we would be in jeopardy of losing future funds, which have not been assigned as of yet," Coryea wrote in an email message. "However, with each project lost there is a recipient lost, contractors lost, subcontractors lost, revenues from impact fees and building permits which create the trickle-down effect."

At Port Manatee, officials were monitoring the situation, said Carlos Buqueras, port executive director.

Since the port handles only cargo vessels, and does not host cruise passengers, any impact would not be as immediate as it could be, he said.

Cargo tolerates potential delays better than passengers do, he noted.

The National Park Service developed a strategy to leave some positions open temporarily, such as the job of superintendent at Bradenton's DeSoto National Memorial, 8300 DeSoto Memorial Highway, said Jorge Acevedo, acting superintendent.

"We should be able to manage our budget for fiscal year 2013 in a very proactive way," he said.

Other federally-funded programs that could be at risk included $98,500 locally in cuts to substance abuse programs, according to Mary Ruiz, president and chief executive officer at Manatee Glens, a private behavioral health hospital and outpatient practice in Bradenton.

Elena Garcia, director of federal programs and grants for the Manatee County School District said the funding cuts will affect the Title I grant the most.

The school district receives $10 million from the U.S. Department of Education to help economically disadvantaged students improve their academic performance. "More than $1 million of that will not got to the Title I student," Garcia said. "We were told to hold it aside so we can send it back," if the sequestration of federal funds happens, she said.

The cuts could also affect several higher education programs.

"The Federal Work Study Program is expected to be cut," said Katherine Walker, director of public affairs and marketing for State College of Florida, "which could result in students seeing their hours cut back at campus jobs funded by the FWS.

"Although the expected decrease would have a relatively minor impact on the individual student; for example, a student working 20 hours a week might be cut back to 19 hours a week," Walker said.

She also said in an email, that "the good news is that the Pell Grant Program is expected to be exempt or largely exempt from across-the-board cuts due to sequestration."

According to Walker, more than half of SCF students receive assistance through the Pell Grant Program, "so this is important to the families in our community and to our student population."

At the University of South Florida, Sarasota/Manatee, Ruth Lando, director of marketing and communications, said they have not heard from the Department of Education so they are not sure how it will affect the university.

"Pell grants and the work study program have already been allocated," she said, "so we don't know what the affect will be."

For Manatee County Sheriff Brad Stuebe and Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski the funding cuts could hurt several law enforcement programs.

"The COPS grant may be affected," Radzilowski said of the Community Oriented Policing Services program.

He said the U.S. Department of Justice has issued a memo saying that the processing of payments may be slow.

"Regardless, if COPS stops, we will remain fully staffed," the chief said. "The city has budgeted for a fully staffed police force."

Stuebe said the looming cuts could hit some of the child protection funding in his office.

"It would be a $84,000 hit," he said. "That pays for two positions."

The sheriff also said a couple of grants are at the end of the cycle and with a reduction in the amount of money in the overall grant pool, there will be less available for each law enforcement agency.

Air travelers may see longer lines and flight delays because of the budget cuts, said Rick Piccolo, CEO and president of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

The Department of Transportation "Secretary (Raymond) LaHood sent of list of control towers that will be closed or be on diminished capacity," Piccolo said, "and we're not on the list."

Because of the reduced operations at the larger airports delays may occur, affecting the flights into Sarasota-Bradenton, he said.

Piccolo said the plan is to furlough air traffic controllers one day a week at the larger airports, but the union contract requires a 30-60 day notice, so the ripple effect will not happen until then.

Another area where the traveling public may feel the impact could be going through the security check, he said.

If some of the Transportation Security Administration officers are furloughed, then it would take longer to go through the line.

"People will have to arrive earlier," Piccolo said, "to make their flight."

The sequestration could also affect nongovernmental agency funding as well.

Mote Marine Laboratory, a private institute, could have a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in federal research funding, said Kumar Mahadevan, president and chief executive officer.

"Our budget has $8.5 million in research," Mahadevan said, "and about $1.5 million comes from federal grants."

He said the sequestration should not affect existing grants, but with fewer federal funds available there will be less money for future research.

Jim Brooks, spokesman for the Miami district office of the Small Business Administration, said nationally there will be a $16.8 million cut in loans for start up businesses.

Also, there will be a reduction federal contracts with small business, Brooks said.

"With the federal government the largest purchaser in the world," he said. "The effect will be widespread."

Some agencies will not feel any of the impact from the budget cuts.

The Manatee County Veterans Service department receives all its funding from Manatee County Commission, so it will be able to continue all its veteran programs, said Andy Huffman, senior veteran service officer.

Likewise for the Bay Pines Veterans Healthcare System, which has a clinic in Manatee County.

"Our funding has already been approved for two years in advance," said Jason Dangel, public information officer for Bay Pines.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, made the Republican case, noting that "federal spending has doubled in the past 10 years, exploding from $1.7 trillion to $3.4 trillion."

The congressman cited several examples of federal programs that could be cut, such as the Environmental Protection Agency to "test air quality in India, study swine manure in Thailand, and teach sustainable cooking techniques in Kenya," or $1 million for NASA to "taste-test food to be served on the planet Mars," he wrote in an email message.

Although the exact impact of the cuts remains to be seen, a far greater threat to the future is a "crushing national debt" that has placed the U.S. on a path to bankruptcy, Buchanan wrote.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson emphasized that budget cuts "will hit Florida and Manatee County hard."

"There will be less funding for things like teachers, child-care services, emergency workers and low-income housing," he wrote in an email message.

"And we don't have a solution yet because some in Washington are still doing a Kabuki dance," he added. "I think the Senate should pass the plan we put on the table recently to avert mandatory across-the-board cuts. Then, we can use that to work out a compromise with the House.

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