Sequestration raises questions, but few answers
You could be forgiven for thinking sequestration is some sort of genteel hobby of the leisure class. Even if you did at first, by now you are certainly aware that the word, in fact, refers to the latest Beltway blood sport, as the GOP-controlled House pits itself against the president in a showdown over the budget.
The deadline set for automatic budget cuts – the term’s true meaning, at least as it relates to the latest budget battle – is today. And if an agreement is not made by the time you read this or turn down the covers tonight, then the budget cuts, the effects of which seem largely unknown, will have kicked in.
So should we prepare for Armageddon, or, as much of the country appears to have opted, tune out?
By all accounts, the proverbial trains will still be running Monday morning (though there is some uncertainty over airports) and life will go on as usual for most in Sonoma County.
“Generally, we don’t have the presence of those big federal agencies – naval, army – based here, as they are in some other areas,” said Sonoma County Economic Development Board Director Ben Stone. Places like San Diego that have large military populations might see more immediate impact.
“The most clear and present issue for the country would be the airport,” said Jim Leddy, county public information officer. “The rest we still have to analyze to see what specific cuts would be. That’s the one we’ve been the most focused on.”
One of the proposals that is part of sequestration is to cut TSA staff for airports under a certain size – including Charles M Schultz and Napa County. Similarly, air traffic controllers would be affected by sequestration.
“We’re digesting what little information we’re getting out of D.C.,” Leddy said.
Jon Stout, Sonoma County airport manager said the effects on Charles M. Schultz, would be nearly immediate, with the tower shutting down April 1, and a month-long lag given for notifying employees and unions.
Only airports with less than 150,00 total annual operations (which includes take offs and landings), or less than 10,000 annual airline operations, will be effected. Charles M. Schultz has 78,000 total and 36,000 airline operations per year. The only commercial airline serviced by Charles M. Schultz is Alaska Airlines.
Stout has been in contact with Alaska Airlines in the lead-up to the sequestration deadline and said that the airline flies out of other airports that have no tower and, in fact, currently makes two off-hours flights a day at Charles M. Schultz.
Homeland Security has issued a caution that security checkpoints will take longer at all airports nationwide due to TSA cuts triggered by sequestration.
However, the TSA issue is more complicated at Charles M. Schultz. TSA workers will be furloughed one day a pay period starting in April, but Charles M. Schultz’s security checkpoints are operated by an outside contractor under the aegis of the TSA. Stout is not clear how the furlough days would translate into the contract.
Stone has also had trouble getting concrete information. He said most of what he’s learned has come from press releases from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and his own internal analysis.
Leddy, likewise, has struggled with lack of clarity. He has been getting information from the National Association of Counties and some from the White House, but did not have enough data to make specific judgments beyond the airport. For instance, he said, “The services that our county offers the community development commission for helping with homeless services, shelters, etc. would be impacted,” but he was unable to determine the exact timing and severity of the impact. “It depends on when specific funding stops and there’s too many variables in that for us.”
Sonoma City Manager Carol Giovanatto added, “We have some federal grant monies we are using for the construction of Chase Street Bridge, but it’s kind of vague as to what information we have and what the effects of (sequestration) would be on that.”
Beyond that, Giovanatto speculated that sequestration would effect federal block grants available to the city, a blow to an area already struggling with the loss of redevelopment funds.
Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno said the school district could expect a 5.9 percent reduction in funds for federal programs – Title I, II and III, IDEA programs. The district receives approximately $2 million in such funding, so would see a loss of about $118,000. Those cuts, however, would not take effect until July, so an agreement before that date would preserve funding.
The Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge receives federal funding, but a spokesperson at the State Department of Finance said it was difficult to say at this point what effect sequestration may have on SDC. “The state-by-state numbers issued by the White House earlier this week were general in nature, and we don’t have a way to validate or evaluate the methodology that they used. If sequestration does in fact occur, then I anticipate that either the Office of Management and Budget or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (or both) will be issuing more detailed guidance,” he said. “Insofar as the state budget is concerned, if there are any adjustments that need to be made on account of sequestration, then those would be reflected when we issue our revised budget in mid-May.”
Last week, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, addressed sequestration in a written statement: “This needs to stop. If sequestration goes into effect we will see arbitrary, harsh, across-the-board budget cuts that Republicans, Democrats, economists and business leaders all say would send our economy into a tail spin and cause essential government services, like air traffic control, to close.”
Overall, sequestration would slow down the local economy in the long term if it continued for any length of time, most agreed.
“What we would feel locally would potentially be higher taxes and spending cuts,” said Giovanatto. She was among those who pointed out that a larger economic downturn, “would affect Sonoma visitors and their spending income.”
“The (County) Board (of Supervisors) shares the concern about the impact on the overall economy,” said Leddy.