Budget battle

As politicians in Washington, D.C., trade proposals – and barbs – over Friday’s deadline to avoid the $85 billion in budget cuts of the so-called sequester, local officials are trying to get a grasp of what the impact could be and when it might be felt.

Money to provide meals to seniors and help people find jobs and get training to make them more employable could be cut sooner than later, while Head Start funding in Washington County appears safe at least through the end of the current school year.

If and when the latter cuts do happen, it’s still not clear what it would mean to local families, said David Brightbill, executive director of Washington-Morgan Community Action, which administers Head Start and other federally funded programs.

“It’s impossible for us to tell which pot of money we’re going to be funded out of,” he said.

Statewide, Head Start and Early Head Start services could be eliminated for approximately 2,500 children, according to a White House fact sheet released this week, breaking down the impact of the sequester on a state-by-state basis. That would be part of the nationwide cuts that could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms to meat inspections, slash domestic and defense spending and lead to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The sequester was designed as an unpalatable fallback, meant to take effect only if a congressional super-committee failed to come up with at least $1 trillion in savings from benefit programs. President Barack Obama wants to replace the sequester with a package of targeted cuts and tax increases, while Republican leaders insist the savings should come from reduced spending alone.

Locally, the most immediate impact might be seen in a reduction of between 5 and 5.4 percent from a portion of the approximately $800,000 allocated to Washington, Morgan, Monroe and Noble counties for job search and employment training assistance, said Kathy Lott-Gramkow, director of employment and training for Community Action. When the cuts happen depend on what course of action the U.S. Department of Labor selects.

Lott-Gramkow said that reduction would probably affect the amount of aid available to each person rather than the number of people assisted. And there could be further cuts coming in July.

The sequester was pushed back a couple of months when a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” was reached in January.

“We’ve been a little more conservative with that since the end of the year” knowing the sequester could still happen, Lott-Gramkow said.

Carrie McNamee, director of senior and community services for Community Action, said funding for the organization’s programs that provided 50,000-plus meals for senior citizens at designated sites or delivered to their homes in 2012 could be cut by more than $10,000.

“What that means is less people are going to be served and the waiting list is going to get longer,” she said, adding there are already more than 100 on the waiting list for Meals on Wheels now.

“I wouldn’t think it would take very long” for the funding cuts to begin, McNamee said.

The reductions in service would first be made through attrition; when someone goes off the program, they would not be replaced, she said.

A reduction in the number of people served could translate to an increase in need from organizations like food pantries or Washington County Harvest of Hope, which works to redirect food that would otherwise be wasted to organizations that distribute food to those in need.

“When you increase giving to more people, you have to increase your food intake,” said Karen Kumpf, founder and executive director of Harvest of Hope.

Kumpf said the poor are at the most risk because of the sequester.

“Unfortunately, the people that stand to lose the most are the people that are being funded by government programs,” she said. “They have the smallest voice when it comes to most government action.”

Brightbill said Washington and Morgan counties’ Head Start and Early Head Start programs – which use federal funds to provide early learning opportunities to children in families at or below 100 percent or so of the federal poverty level – are under contract through the end of March and have funding in place to get them through the spring.

“We won’t really feel it until next September,” he said.

Reno resident Dustin Richards, 26, will be watching those developments closely. Both his children are in Head Start, and his son’s experience in Early Head Start not only prompted him to enroll his daughter but also led Richards to apply to work for the program.

“Not only can it affect my children, but it can also affect my job,” said Richards, a home-based visitor with Early Head Start.

Before his daughter was enrolled, Richards said he was spending about $100 a week on child care, along with diapers and other supplies to be used while she was being watched. Early Head Start covers all that at no charge, and Richards wondered how much the government would really be saving if that option wasn’t available.

Some people who aren’t making much money anyway could decide it isn’t worth it to work and pay for child care, Richards said. If they stop working, they would probably soon be seeking public assistance.

“Either way it’s going to cost the government money,” he said.

Aside from that, the program is beneficial to his children, Richards said.

“It’s sad that they want to cut the budget for something so significant,” he said.

Local schools aren’t expecting any changes to their federal funds in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. But administrators will be watching to see what happens in fiscal year 2014.

The White House fact sheet says Ohio stands to lose $25.1 million in primary and secondary education funding, which would put about 350 teacher and aide jobs at risk and result in approximately 34,000 fewer students being served and around 100 fewer schools getting funding. Money for students with disabilities would drop by approximately $22 million, affecting an estimated 270 teachers, aides and staff who work with those children.

But how that would translate to the local level remains largely unknown.

“These monies currently allow Warren and Fort Frye both to provide targeted intervention to students with the greatest needs,” said Melcie Wells, treasurer for the Fort Frye and Warren Local school districts, in an email Tuesday. “Any reduction in these funds would require the district to either come up with these monies from the general fund or reduce services when allowed by law.”

Washington County Career Center Superintendent Dennis Blatt said the sequester would affect federal Perkins funding for career and technical education. That’s a source that has already been reduced in recent years.

“Obviously we don’t need a reduction, but it wouldn’t be a drastic reduction,” Blatt said.

The career center currently is receiving $256,516 this fiscal year for adult and secondary students, Treasurer Joe Crone said.

The White House fact sheet warns the sequester would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reduce funding for grants that support firefighter positions and state and local emergency management personnel. But Jeff Lauer, Washington County EMA director, said he’s received no communication from state officials about any impending cuts.

“My office is funded by a 50 percent grant from the feds,” he said.

Marietta Fire Chief C.W. Durham said the most obvious effect on his department that he can foresee is a smaller pot to be divided among grant applicants seeking funding for upgraded equipment.

The fact sheet also mentions cuts on the national level to mental health and related services. But David Browne, executive director of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board, said he hasn’t been warned of any looming funding reductions for the already strapped local system.

“If we were expecting a cut, I’m sure I would have heard about it and I’ve not heard a single word,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed.