Local News

Sequestration's looming ax

SEBRING - Avon Park Meals On Wheels volunteer Paul Devlin has one observation to make: "There is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody is paying for it." And another: "We don't ask the government for money because it's a waste." For once, the program's self-reliance on donations and payments from its clients is saving itself some worrying. As the nation braces for a series of automatic cuts to government agencies, which triggers starting today, the Meals On Wheels Association of America is estimating that its local groups nationwide will serve 19 million fewer meals due to funding cuts.
In Sebring and Avon Park, however, it will be business as usual since the two don't depend on federal funds. "Sebring Meals On Wheels is privately funded," said its Director of Operations Terry Smalley. The group has "one big fundraiser" and their clients also pay for their meals. Over at Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which operates 10 centers and programs in Highlands County and helps about 650 kids a year, things are more uncertain. RCMA Director of Communications & Marketing Bill Coats said they are bracing for a 5 percent cut. Considering that 90 percent of their funding comes from the federal government, the group potentially stands to lose millions of dollars, although Coats said they have flexibility between until Sept. 30 (the end of the federal fiscal year) "about how and when to absorb budget cuts." RCMA provides childcare for migrant and rural poor children in the state through its Head Start and early Head Start programs. Should cutbacks kick in, they will have to decrease the number of families they serve. "Our options," Coats said: "Closing a few of our 70 child-care centers and laying off all employees there, or closing selected classrooms (and laying off those teachers) in child-care centers that otherwise continue to operate." The closures would occur in locations where "the need for our services appears to have diminished lately, based on waiting lists and other data." The vagaries of government funding are not new to RCMA. A couple of years ago they closed down three childcare centers because the funds dried up. As he put it: "Government funding rises and falls all the time. This is one of the worst, but we do have the experience dealing with it." The sequesters are a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government agencies, totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, set to trigger today. The cuts would be split 50-50 between defense and domestic discretionary, which Congress pushed back to March 1 as part of the fiscal cliff deal at the end of the last session. President Barack Obama said earlier this week that the action will result in $85 billion in cuts to the federal budget in the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. Heads of federal agencies have warned of national parks being closed, 90-minute flight delays and unemployment checks trimmed some 10 percent. According to a Florida TaxWatch Research Institute report: "Paychecks for more than 130,000 federal employees in our state, which makes up approximately 12 percent of the total government employment in Florida, will be affected." One of those potentially impacted is the Avon Park Air Force Range, a 106,000-acre military training facility located in Polk and Highlands County. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress Wednesday that the Pentagon will implement furloughs for most of its estimated 800,000 civilian employees - including about 7,500 in Michigan - beginning next week if sequestration isn't avoided. The Air Force's Public Affairs Officer Lt. Meredith Kirchoff said Wednesday they don't have any specifics on the cutback's potential impact on the bombing range. "We have not received any guidance," she said. Another local entity that gets federal money also will have a better idea today on what it may have to start cutting. Mike Averyt, the Highlands County school district's assistant superintendent of business operations, is scheduled to attend a department of education meeting in Tallahassee today. One of the topics discussed will be the sequestration and how to handle its potential impact. The school district's budget is $105 million and about $15 million comes from Washington.