Sequester cuts expected to hit home

Threats looking across Southwest Colorado

WASHINGTON - It's like a giant game of wait-and-see, but with millions of dollars of federal funding on the line for Colorado.

As Congress scrambles to avert automatic spending cuts, called sequestration, before they take effect Friday, local organizations and officials are left wondering how they can prepare for something that was never supposed to happen in the first place.

The sequester, first passed through the Budget Control Act of 2011, was intended to force the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to make a deal that would cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget throughout 10 years.

If the committee didn't do that by its deadline, automatic cuts would begin - cuts so massive, the committee would surely act to avoid them.

But it didn't.

"The sequester was never intended to be policy," said Amy Brundage, deputy White House press secretary for the economy, in a conference call with reporters Monday. "These cuts were never intended to be policy, and they shouldn't happen."

And now, $85 billion stands to be slashed nationwide this fiscal year - evenly divided between domestic and defense programs - starting Friday.

In Colorado, $90 million could be cut from nondefense programs this fiscal year, said Eric Brown, a spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper. The state also could see an $810 million economic impact from defense-related cuts this fiscal year, Brown said in an email.

Ripple effects

Locally, the Durango-La Plata County Airport, local school districts, Fort Lewis College and Mesa Verde National Park are just some of many organizations that could see their coffers diminished beginning Friday.

But until that happens - or if Congress stops it from happening - there's not much officials can do.

"We have not made any contingency plans yet," said Ron LeBlanc, Durango's city manager. "Until we get further information, it's fruitless."

For Durango, federal funding plays a large role in local transportation, LeBlanc said. The Durango-La Plata County Airport and the city's public transit system gets the majority of its funding from federal agencies, he said.

The airport is operating normally, according to Gary Suiter, interim director of aviation, until officials hear otherwise from the federal government.

Other parts of the city also could take hits.

"We work closely with the Forestry Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, on a variety of properties and programs," LeBlanc said. "I don't know how they're going to be affected. In turn, they can't tell me what it's going to mean for the city."

On the county level, La Plata County might be forced to reduce staffing - which would limit the services it can provide, said Lezlie Mayer, the county's director of human services.

"Just a reduction in staff would mean a reduction in programs," she said.

But no sequestration-specific plans for the county have been made, she added.

In neighboring Montezuma County, Mesa Verde National Park could see its budget down by $321,000 in this fiscal year, according to the Cortez Journal, as part of cuts to the National Park Service.

Betty Lieurance, public information officer at Mesa Verde, told The Durango Herald shorter winter hours could be kept in place during summer and fewer tours might be offered.

Lori Montgomery, Bureau of Land Management district manager for Southwest Colorado, said it's too early to identify cuts for public-lands funding.

"Right now, we don't have anything," she said

education

Throughout Colorado, about 1,170 fewer low-income students would receive aid for college, and about 430 fewer students would get work-study jobs, according to the White House website.

But Fort Lewis College - which receives several million dollars in federal grants - still can't get ready for that, said spokesman Mitch Davis.

"At this point, it's hard for us to prepare for anything," he said. "We're kind of waiting to see what happens."

"It certainly wouldn't be a good thing for Fort Lewis Colege," he said.

Local school districts also could be affected, particularly in terms of federal funding for special education, free and reduced lunches, and other programs.

The state could lose about $8.4 million in primary- and secondary-education funding, according to White House estimates, which would put 120 teacher and aide jobs in jeopardy. Colorado also might lose an additional $8.1 million allocated for students with disabilities.

"I think everybody's kind of hoping for a best-case scenario," said Durango School District Chief Financial Officer Laine Gibson.

The district received $1,836,710 in federal funding in fiscal year 2011-12, with $750,000 to $755,000 allocated for free and reduced lunches, Gibson said.

"I don't think we let students go hungry," he said.

Officials in the Montezuma-Cortez School District face the same problems, but the district already is having preliminary discussions about potential cuts.

"It's going to be really a crushing blow when this goes through," said Superintendent Alex Carter. "We really rely hugely on federal grants."

The Ignacio School District could be affected "to the tune of $43,000" if the cuts go through, according to Annie Gunderson, the district's finance director.

The district relies on impact aid, which is financial assistance for schools that are on federal land and therefore cannot collect property-tax revenue.

"It helps us tremendously," Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto. "It's why we're able to provide some of the services we're providing is because we get extra help from the federal government."

Politicians

The sequester cuts were originally slated to begin at the start of 2013, but lawmakers changed the deadline to March 1.

The White House has released state-by-state impact estimates this week, in an effort to pressure Congress.

"There's a fair amount of scare tactics being put in place," said Josh Green, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., voted against the fiscal cliff legislation. The Colorado lawmakers both had said they wanted legislation to address spending reform and deficit reduction.

"The sequester is not good policy and would be damaging to Colorado and the economy," said Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi in an email.