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VOL. 37 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 27, 2013

Sequester woes: Things could go from bad to worse for Midstate

By Hollie Deese

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Soldiers from a deploying Security Force Assistance Team with the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), during a stress shoot training exercise at Fort Campbell’s Range 40a. The efficiency of deployment training at the base could be affected by continued sequester cuts.

-- Courtesy Of Fort Campbell

Six months in, Tennesseans are dealing with sequester cuts as best they can.

To date, among those hardest hit: Head Start, food programs for the elderly and disabled, and Fort Campbell.

Most local agencies have found a way to absorb sequester cuts through the end of the fiscal year, but not without some difficulty, and predictions for next year are no better.

“We were cut about $1.7 million dollars, and about $900,000 of that was in home-delivered meals,” says Ryan Ellis, Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability communications director.

“That number is statewide. In the greater Nashville area, that translated to $154,100 in cuts, or nearly 25,000 meals. We’re trying to figure out how to absorb that without hopefully cutting too many seniors off their meals. It’s only been six months, and like any good program we were prepared for the worst. So we had a little money and reserves on the off chance that a disaster like this would happen.”

Agencies and individuals who depend on government assistance have reason to be skittish.

Congress is supposed to agree on a spending bill by Sept. 30, the end of their fiscal year. If it doesn’t pass a new budget, the federal government will partially shut down.

To avoid this, Congress could pass a continuing resolution to keep the government spending at the current sequester levels for another three months until a larger deal can be reached. The full fiscal 2014 operating budget begins Oct. 1.

In addition, a bill passed last week by the U.S. House would cut $40 billion from the food stamp program, but it isn’t likely to pass the Senate. There will be automatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP, or food stamps] in November whether the House bill moves forward or not.

In the beginning

Sequestration dates back to 2011 when Congress passed a law stating that if members couldn’t agree on a plan to reduce the nation’s deficit by $4 trillion — which included $2.5 trillion previously cut through a combination of spending cuts and increased tax rates — then another $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts would start to take effect in 2013.

There was no compromise in Congress, and the impact of sequestration began in Tennessee in March of this year.

“The sequester was a necessary evil,” says Jeremy Rettick, NAIFA, chief marketing officer of Covenant Reliance Producers in Nashville.

“The government has been on an unsustainable spending course for many years. In the 20s, U.S. spending as it relates to GDP (gross domestic product) was around 10 percent, and is now over 70 percent. This is the highest level in history other than a brief period during WWII. We have to get our financial house in order to provide a strong America to future generations.”

Attempts were made by some Tennessee lawmakers to use a $100 million increase from the state’s rainy day fund to help those hardest hit by the cuts.

“I was unsuccessful in convincing the Republicans that we needed to hold the very vulnerable citizens of Tennessee harmless from the sequestration cuts,” says Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis). “We had growth money. The revenue reports have come in and we were over-collecting based upon our projections. It was clear we had very conservative revenue estimates.

“We have the money to hold seniors harmless and Head Start children, in particular, harmless from the sequestration cuts. What we’re talking about is people going to bed hungry. Senior citizens – the Greatest Generation – are going to bed hungry, and we’re making a political point. And if I sound bitter, I am.”

More cuts to come?

The state’s share of sequester cuts was not insignificant. The White House projected before the sequester kicked in that Head Start and Early Head Start services in Tennessee would be eliminated for 1,200 children.

In August, the Office of Head Start reported it was actually 2,442 Tennessee children who had been cut from the Department of Human and Health Services program that provides education and nutritional help to low-income children and their families.

“Since we have more money than we need to operate the government, one cannot argue that we chose between one program or the other,” Sen. Kyle says. “What we did choose to do was make our savings account bigger. It’s kind of like having a small child and opening up a 529 account for them, but not feeding them. We’re saving for your future, but we can’t worry about today.”

Ellis feels things will be even worse next year. “We have no hope that we are going to get the money back anytime soon,” he says. “We’re just praying we won’t get cut more.”

That scenario probably isn’t likely.

Norma Powell, assistant director the Greater Nashville Regional Council Area Agency on Aging and Disability, says after their initial round of cuts this year, there will need to cut an additional $124,800 from the homemaker, personal care, life alert and home-delivered meal services budget through June 2014.

Powell’s group serves 365 seniors and people with disabilities in the greater Nashville area. A freeze has been implemented on its wait list, which was at 1,344 at the end of last month.

“We are asking our case managers to look at their caseload to see if any of them could be reduced at least one hour a week,” Powell says. “If someone is only receiving minimum services of two hours and those are very critical for that particular individual, then we won’t jeopardize that person and put them at risk.

“We’re trying to find subtle ways that it does not jeopardize the participant, but yet will continue to allow us to operate.”

Around February they will know whether or not their strategy has been successful and whether they will have to make deeper cuts. “We’re hoping that everything will eventually level off without us having to cut additional services to our participants,” she says.

Fort Campbell’s furloughs

The White House had predicted about 7,000 civilian Department of Defense employees in the state would be furloughed, but the actual number this year was closer to 3,000, and furloughs for the fiscal year were suspended after six days instead of the proposed 11.

“Nevertheless, that is money that you were not getting paid,” says Bob Jenkins, Garrison Public Affairs Officer at Fort Campbell. “Whatever your daily rate is, multiply that by six and that’s how much money they lost. And for some people that’s pretty substantial. Anytime you talk about taking money out of someone’s wallet that is a pretty significant undertaking.”

And Jenkins is concerned about the ripple effect furloughs continue to have across the community.

“If people have money taken out of their wallet, they are not going to have that money to go out and eat at a restaurant outside the gate, or they are not going to have money to go down to buy something they need for the house,” he says. “And that affects the local business owners.”

In fact, Jenkins is waiting to see the numbers, but isn’t convinced the furloughs did anything to save money if you take into account the man hours spent delaying people from doing things they would normally do.

The Blanchfield Army Community Hospital not only reduced services on Fridays, but civilian staff also was included in that round of furloughs. The commissary was closed on Mondays for a while, affecting the bottom line of retired veterans who depended on taking advantage of the reduced price and no sales tax.

“That slows services and the availability of services offered on a particular day,” Jenkins says. “You may be at the doctor for a longer period of time, impacting you in a way that means you have to take four hours off of work instead of the hour that you would normally spend. You may have to take the full day off of work.”

There also is concern that taking all of the federal-mandated furlough days at once entitles people to state unemployment benefits.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of people here do that, but across the entire country we’re talking about negating the whole purpose of putting people on furlough to begin with,” Jenkins says.

Possibly the biggest concern at Fort Campbell, if cuts continue, is how it will affect deployment training. Typically, a brigade of about 3,500 troops would all be trained at once, no matter when they would be scheduled to deploy. With extended cuts, soldiers would not get trained until they were scheduled to go, which reduces military readiness.

“It is a lot cheaper to go ahead and train everybody all at once when you go through training,” Jenkins says. “When sequestration is in effect, you can’t necessarily do that. There are sometimes people who are left behind for various reasons.

“So if you have to bring some more people over, you first have to make sure that they go through training and then they can come over. That delays the process of them being able to deploy. I’m talking in very simplistic terms, but that is sort of the way it plays out.”

Head Start doesn’t want to cut jobs

In July, 280 local Head Start employees began receiving checks with a 2 percent cut in pay.

The salary cuts were in addition to a reduction of field trips this summer and a $50,000 reduction on classroom supplies, all to accommodate the program’s overall 5.27 percent budget cut from the sequester. That’s a total of $575,729 for this fiscal year alone.

So far the program has managed to avoid cutting actual slots, but Lisa McCrady, public information representative for the Metropolitan Action Commission, isn’t sure that can continue.

“We are really just trying to absorb the impact of our current cuts and we do not want to create even more hardship for our county by reducing the amount of slots,” McCrady says. “However, we do know that if the cuts are deeper than what they are this fiscal year, likely we will have to reduce the amount of children that we serve.”

Currently considered a year-round program, McCrady says they would consider reducing to only serving a portion of the year if they had to.

“When you’re looking at a budget like the Head Start grant itself, it is really designed to cover the basics of the program,” she explains. “So there’s not a lot of areas where you could cut and not have some type of impact to the program.”

For now, they are alerting parents that next year things might be different so they’re not shocked if changes must be made.

“These families are already identified as vulnerable,” McCrady says. “Any cuts to a program that services children as well as enables parents to go to work, is going to have an economic impact.”

SNAP advocates worry

Even those not directly affected by sequester cuts are still dealing with the fallout.

Jennifer Bailey, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program outreach specialist with Community Food Advocates, says the program budget for SNAP was exempt from sequester cuts.

“However, any cuts to the hours of government employees that help administer SNAP limit the number of cases processed in a given time period,” she says. “As a result, those in need of assistance experience longer waiting times for benefits assistance.”

Bailey is even concerned sequester cuts for government employees could put them at risk for needing the program themselves. “Though I have not yet heard of a case of this happening yet, I would imagine that some government employees working at an hourly wage may themselves qualify for SNAP if cuts to their hours continue,” she says.

In fact, it’s the underlying uncertainty about what is next that has everyone worried. With nine more years of budget tightening to go, the best anyone can hope for are continuing resolutions to spare certain programs. Under the Budget Control Act, congressional leaders are supposed to decide where the spending cuts fall within each agency’s budget rather than the across-the-board cuts implemented this first year.

For instance, air travelers may have be breathing easy now, but that could soon change. After the Federal Aviation Agency was forced to cut $600 million in funding across the board this year, air traffic controller furloughs were suspended in April in order to stop traffic delays. But who knows about next year?

“Congress has not yet approved a budget for F[iscal] Y[ear] 2014 so we do not have an update for you regarding future funding allocations,” the FAA wrote in a statement. “The Administration continues to urge Congress to act to replace the damaging cuts imposed by the sequester with a balanced approach that reduces the deficit while protecting critical priorities.”

But first, Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders need to agree on a budget resolution.

“The biggest complaint I have heard from people who are directly affected by all this is that they want leadership inside the Beltway to make a decision, plain and simple,” Jenkins says. “They need to ratify a budget. They need to agree upon a budget and get it passed and that will over time help correct things.

“You can’t sustain sequestration for a long period of time, or furloughs like that for a long period of time, because at some point things will collapse unless there is something done.”

A face on the issues

Sen. Kyle hopes putting a face to the cuts will help spur change in January when he tries again for another resolution.

“It’s one thing to talk about people who might be losing food, but it’s another thing to talk about people who did lose food,” he explains. “We have to put a face on hunger. We have to put a face on the children. We have to put a face on these cuts.”

The SNAP bill passed by the House of Representatives last week would cut $40 billion from the program over the next ten years. But even if it doesn’t pass in the Senate, more automatic cuts are set to hit the program in November anyway.

According to Keith Barnes, SNAP Fresh coordinator at Community Food Advocates, SNAP has been receiving additional stimulus funds for the past four years that expire in November. When that happens, all SNAP participants will receive about a 5 percent reduction in benefits.

To try to counteract that, Community Food Advocates are piloting a SNAP incentive program at one of their farmers’ markets partners so SNAP customers can shop there, spend $20 in SNAP and receive an additional $20 toward fresh fruits and vegetables. Their hope is to launch it city-wide next year.

“In a nation where 17.6 million households are food insecure, it is morally and economically unacceptable to play politics with hunger,” says Bailey.

“The cuts proposed are not new. Since 1996, SNAP benefits for able-bodied single adults have been dependent on those individuals’ ability to work 20 hours per week.

“Only following the 2008 recession were states with unemployment rates above 10 percent allowed to waive this rule. Tennessee ranks 41st nationwide with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.

“If this bill [last week’s House bill] passes into law as written thousands of our neighbors will go to bed hungry.”

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