Sequester impacts still a mystery to local entities

Photographers line an overlook to Spruce Tree House to take pictures of the ruin during the Mesa Verde Luminaria Holiday Open House at the park. Enlargephoto

Journal file/ Sam Green

Photographers line an overlook to Spruce Tree House to take pictures of the ruin during the Mesa Verde Luminaria Holiday Open House at the park.

Sequestration. It's a big, cumbersome word, and, for now, an even bigger mystery. Area officials are expressing near-unanimous uncertainty over how the across-the-board spending cuts signed into law by President Obama last Friday will play out practically in Montezuma County.

The sequester triggered $85 billion in defense and non-defense discretionary cutbacks the rest of this fiscal year, and $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Some are predicting negligible impact to the area economy. Others feel there will be repercussions, but are unsure what they'll look like.

"As far as the sequestration goes, we don't anticipate any direct impacts to the city," Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said by email. "While the airport does receive funding through the (Federal Aviation Administration), it comes in the form of matching grants for projects."

For example, the taxiway shoulder project the city had slated for 2013 may be pushed to 2014, but daily operations of the airport will continue without interruption.

"Obviously, the city relies upon Mesa Verde National Park as a premier tourism draw, so any cuts to the park's operations could affect our tourism industry, but it's far too early to tell if this will have a real or meaningful impact," Hale added.

County administrator Ashton Harrison, also, was in the dark.

"Social services and senior services, things like meals and transportation, are two big (programs) funded primarily by federal money. Even some of the money filtered through the state comes originally from the federal government," he said. "But we haven't been informed of any (specific cuts) at this point in time."

Dennis Story, director of social services, said the general consensus since January - when Congress struck a "fiscal cliff" deal and postponed the sequester - was that a compromise would be reached to prevent the March 1 cuts. But it didn't pan out that way.

"The message that came down to me was not to worry. Sequestration would never happen," he said. "Now it has happened and we're not sure what to prepare for."

He speculated that Montezuma County, as a "small player" relative to major cities, may avoid the full brunt of the cuts.

Colorado Springs, for example, home to the Air Force Academy and the Army's Fort Carson, is poised to suffer most of the $130 million in military spending cuts in Colorado. The Department of Defense, a major employer, will put about 12,000 jobs on furlough in late April, reducing gross pay by about $68.5 million, according to a White House summary of state-by-state impacts.

Primary and secondary education in Colorado could see $16.5 million chopped from its budget this year, the document said, half of it from programs for students with disabilities.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, Lori Haukeness, assistant superintendent for Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1, said Title 1 grants - awarded to districts with low performance scores or high poverty rates - are due to be slashed by roughly 5.5 percent. The district also wants to hire six teachers for kindergarten and first grade to shrink class sizes, but those plans may have to be altered, she said.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe could feel the ripple effects of cuts tp the Bureau of Indians Affairs and Indian Health Services.

Public lands agencies in Southwest Colorado were unable to specify how they'd be affected.

Mesa Verde National Park, which the Cortez Journal reported last month was on the hook for $321,000 in potential cuts, still reported being in a "holding pattern."

Spokeswoman Betty Lieurance said the park received a waiver to hire seasonal employees, like tour guides, maintenance workers and archaeologists. Summer hours officially begin Memorial Day weekend, but the more famous sights are, for now, scheduled to open for guided tours earlier: the Cliff Palace on April 7 and Balcony House on April 21.

Lieurance said shortening park hours might end up being necessary, but was hesitant to name any specific dates at present.

"There are a lot of variables, and we are hopeful something will be decided," she said. "The closer we get to the (tourist) season the more we'll be looking at those solutions."

Similar befuddlement came from Shannon Borders, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management's Southwest district.

"It's too early to say. They're analyzing the budget now," she said.

Borders' San Juan National Forest counterpart, Ann Bond, was traveling and not immediately available for comment.

So the waiting game continues.

Sequestration has elicited, somewhat predictably, divergent reactions in Washington, D.C.. Fiscal conservatives scoff at the cuts as drops in the bucket. Congressional Democrats, some Republicans and President Obama have warned of hampered economic growth. A poll of 196 economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics revealed that almost all - 94 percent - agreed that the federal deficit was a problem, but more than 70 percent thought the sequester was ill-advised, according to Reuters.

Journal Staff Writer Michael Maresh contributed to this story.