Sequester Cuts Smaller than Feared so Far

WASHINGTON -- Nearly a month into the federal budget cutting process known as sequester, St. Louis County heard this week that it won't lose money for disaster planning or for nutrition programs for women and children.

About 4,500 employees at Scott Air Force Base felt a measure of relief when the Pentagon said it would trim the number of furlough days for civilian defense workers to 14 from 22. And local programs aimed at preparing for a disaster won't be cut at all, at least until fall.

Federal budget cuts totaling $85 billion that took effect March 1 are still being apportioned by federal agencies, and the details of furloughs for many federal workers are still unclear. Concerns remain in the St. Louis region, where thousands of jobs are tied to federal research grants, to Scott Air Force Base and to defense contracts.

But so far, cuts are arriving more slowly and falling less heavily on people in need than anticipated, according to a spot check of entities relying on government funds.

In negotiations leading up to the sequester, the Agriculture Department warned that benefits for 600,000 women and children in the popular Women, Infants and Children program could be jeopardized.

But agencies operating the nutritional program locally are being told they will not be subject to cuts through the Sept. 30 end of the government's fiscal year. In a statement, the Agriculture Department said the agency's budget "will be sufficient for all eligible participants to continue being served."

Dolores Gunn, St. Louis County Department of Health director, said she learned, too, that federal monies flowing through Jefferson City for local disaster preparedness will remain steady through Sept. 30.

"We've kind of been sitting on the edge of our seats for quite awhile," Gunn said.

Nonetheless, the county must still confront vexing planning decisions, she said, including the possibility of layoffs. But now there is more time.

"Just because the federal fiscal year ends in September doesn't mean the needs of the community disappear then," she said.

UNCERTAINTIES, UNKNOWNS

Missouri's Department of Mental Health is among state agencies dealing with what a spokeswoman calls "a lot of unknowns." Based on across-the-board cuts, the department is bracing for the loss of up to $2.1 million for the programs it operates across the state

In the city of St. Louis, department heads are waiting for word on the level of cuts in public safety, health and other federal grants.

"All of it is of concern," said Maggie Crane, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay. "Without that money, programs will be reduced or eliminated. There's no extra money anywhere."

Federal support for HIV services is among the question marks. St. Louis received more than $6 million last year under the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. But nearly two-thirds of that allocation has been held up this year, and the extent of cuts through next year remains uncertain.

City health director Pam Walker said money from the program was used for doctors, transportation and immediate health needs of some 2,000 people who are HIV-positive.

"It's this huge uncertainty that I don't know how to plan for," she said. "If they just said it would be a 10 percent across-the-board cut, we could start working with that."

Clinics that treat tens of thousands of low-income people in the St. Louis area had reason to fret as Congress maneuvered to lock in the sequester.

But thanks to a pot of money available under the Affordable Care Act, clinics that provide health services to more than 140,000 people in greater St. Louis expect to be able to make up for roughly 5 percent in across-the-board cuts.

Area clinic managers are being told that a $300 million increase budgeted separately under the health-care legislation for growing and expanding community health clinics can be used to make up about $120 million cuts across the country.

"It's definitely a relief because we're already financially stressed," said Joseph Pierle, CEO of the Missouri Primary Care Association.

'A PUNCHING BAG'

The reduction of furlough days for some 700,000 defense workers across the country came after Congress shifted $10 billion between accounts in budget legislation to help the military better absorb $43 billion in automatic cuts.

More details are expected next week. But the 4,500 workers at Scott could be looking at 14 days of unpaid furloughs beginning in mid-June rather than the 22 days they were told to expect starting in mid-April.

Until a furlough plan is finalized, it is unknown how many of the civilian defense workers in the region, including the 5,000 at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, will be affected.

Furloughs for workers across the federal government are landing unevenly. As a result of an amendment that Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., helped engineer last week, federal inspectors at meat and poultry plants are exempted from unpaid days away from the job.

But the Federal Aviation Administration, which is closing control towers at 149 small airports, is proceeding with 14 days of furloughs. In Missouri, the Columbia Regional Airport and the Branson Airport are listed as closing starting April 7. In Illinois, the towers at St. Louis Regional Airport, the Southern Illinois Airport serving the Murphysboro/Carbondale area and the Central Illinois Regional Airport at Bloomington-Normal were slated for closing.

The National Park Service is among agencies averting furloughs with a hiring freeze and other cuts. But employees at the Justice Department and some agencies may not know for weeks when if furloughs will occur.

The uncertainty is weighing on federal workers such as Mike Hinchcliff, an auditor in the local Defense Contract Audit Agency office.

"You just feel like you're a punching bag sometimes," said Hinchcliff, a union steward for the American Federation of Government Employees.

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Sequestration and the Military
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