Sequester's local effects unclear

By By Terri Harber and Chris Collins February 27, 2013 10:06 am

By Terri Harber and  Chris Collins

Baker City Herald

The mandatory cuts in federal spending that will begin Friday if lawmakers fail to reach a budget deal probably would have effects in Baker County.

But what the effects would be — and who would be most directly affected — is not clear.

Federal officials have estimated the dollar amounts of cuts to each state, but it’s possible that state officials can shuffle money among programs to offset some of the losses in federal dollars.

Translating those state figures into local effects is difficult.

One of the largest federal operations in the county, and one of its most popular tourist attractions, is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City. The center is operated by the BLM, an agency of the Department of Interior.

Sarah LeCompte, the center’s director, said “there are planned scenarios with different levels of budget cuts. We’ll know more next week.”

“We don’t know when we would feel it, but we expect we will feel it,” Baker School District Superintendent Walt Wegener said Tuesday.

The school district is one of many government entities that, though locally operated, receives money from the federal government.

Wegener said the cuts might affect the school district’s programs that serve low-income and special needs students with reductions estimated at between 4 percent and 8 percent.

The timing also is uncertain. The cuts could come as early as April 1 or might not be implemented until July 1, Wegener said.

“We have no idea what actually they plan on doing,” he said, adding that people seem to be “whistling past the graveyard and pretending like it’s not going to happen.”

If the cuts come, Wegener said the district would be faced with eliminating one or two teachers.

“We’ll try to finish the year and make up for it next year with some kind of reduction in force,” he said.

“Yes, we’ve considered it and we’ve penciled out some ideas, but we have no idea what they’re going to do.”

Eastern Oregon Head Start programs, which serve 3- and 4-year-olds in Baker and Union counties also would be affected by any federal budget cuts. The program, which has centers in La Grande, Elgin, Union and Baker City serves 177 children, according to Codi Eby, the program’s fiscal manager in La Grande. Sixty of those preschoolers attend classes at the Baker City center.

Officials estimate that statewide, 600 Oregon children would lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start. But it’s unknown how many Baker County children would be among those affected.

Baker County Commissioner Fred Warner Jr. said he believes the impact of sequestration on county operations won’t be apparent for at least a few weeks.

Warner checked to make sure the county received its payment through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a vital source of money for the county’s road department, about $800,000 annually.

The check had arrived.

The county also is responsible for an array of services that depend on federal funding. Some are directly provided by county staff and others contracted out.

Warner mentioned public health, mental health, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, WIC, and Vocational Rehabilitation as specific types of services that could be forced to cut back.

If federal legislators can’t resolve the matter within the next few month, Warner said he and other county officials would start worrying about whether the payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) arrive and are at the expected level. 

The PILT program gives annual payments to counties with large amounts of federal land to offset the loss of tax revenue, since the federal government doesn’t pay property taxes.

About half of Baker County’s 2 million acres is federal land.

This year’s PILT payment to Baker County is expected to be $625,000. It’s used for general fund expenses.

Mary Jo Carpenter, Baker County manager for Community Connection, said seniors and low-income residents served by her agency will definitely be affected by any across-the-board federal funding cuts.

Community Connection programs are funded through the Older Americans Act, which sends federal money to the states for distribution to Area Agencies on Aging.

“We’re already pretty much cut to the bone,” Carpenter said, adding that Congress has not increased funding to the Older Americans Act for the past 10 years.

Carpenter said Community Connection has coped by cutting  programs and increasing fundraising to support services. The agency has stepped up efforts to recruit entree sponsors for its meals program, organized a fundraising auction and revamped its menu offerings to reduce costs.

Carpenter said the senior center possibly would be required to drop its lunch program and meals on wheels service to four days a week if the cuts come. The agency took that step about 20 years ago under similar circumstances, she said.

Program administrators would work with Senior Advisory Councils to set priorities for services before any services are reduced, Carpenter said. 

“It really is kind of a wait- and-see thing right now,” she added. “Basically we’re to the point of seeing how deep the cuts are before we make any final decisions.”

The U.S. Forest Service is one of the larger federal employers in the county, and it’s possible that employees will have to take furlough days as a result of sequestration.

Officials at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which is based in Baker City, referred questions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of which the Forest Service is an agency.

According to a letter from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, sequestration could force the Forest Service to close as many as 670 of its 19,000 recreation sites nationally, including campgrounds, trailheads and picnic areas.

Vilsack’s letter does not mention any specific sites, however.

Vilsack writes that sequestration cuts would reduce the Forest Service’s ability to thin forests and undertake other work designed to protect forests from wildfires.

Keith Chu, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told The Oregonian newspaper that Wyden would insist that timber harvests be exempted from spending cuts, however.

“No matter what the funding level is, Sen. Wyden will continue to push the administration to prioritize big, landscape-scale projects that put logs into mills and make forests healthier and more resilient,” Chu said.