Sequestration trickles down

Federal spending cuts to affect region’s parks, schools, hospitals

Beth Wheeler, a seasonal interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, answers questions from a tour group at Cliff Palace. The park could have fewer tours if sequestration cuts continue. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Beth Wheeler, a seasonal interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, answers questions from a tour group at Cliff Palace. The park could have fewer tours if sequestration cuts continue.

A little more than a month has passed since sequestration – automatic spending cuts imposed by the federal government – took effect, and local entities are starting to feel the strain.

The cuts are slowly trickling down to counties, and much remains to be seen, but national parks and school districts have received initial word about how much of their budgets will be slashed.

The sequester 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 in 10 years. The committee failed to act by its deadline, and starting March 1, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts in government spending were implemented.

Congress passed a bill, which President Barack Obama signed March 26, to spare a few programs from cuts, mainly funding for security at U.S. embassies overseas. The bill, however, did not reduce the $85 billion the government is required to cut.

Mesa Verde National Park’s budget has been cut by $335,000. The park is hopeful some of the cuts may be averted as Congress debates the 2014 national budget, said Betty Lieurance, public information officer for the park.

The park won’t fill some full-time positions that are vacant and has reduced the number of vehicles in its fleet. Visitors should not be affected by the cuts, but if more cuts come, the park could be forced to reduce the number of tours to the cliff dwellings, Lieurance said.

Southwest Conservation Corps, a nonprofit that works with young people on environment-related projects, expects to see 10 to 20 percent cut from its $7 million budget and is looking at cutting 25 to 30 jobs in Durango. The agency employes about 800 people in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, including about 250 people in Durango, CEO Harry Bruell said.

“It not only affects the jobs we have, but it means less work will be done. Trails won’t get fixed. Areas that need to be cut out for thinning to protect them from wildfires will be cut. Wildlife habitats won’t be improved,” he said.

The agency also is waiting to see what comes out of 2014 budget negotiations. If Congress passes Obama’s proposed 2014 budget, the cuts to the agency would be reversed, Bruell said.

Under Obama’s proposed budget, the Bureau of Land Management would receive $1.2 billion in 2014, a 2.9 percent increase from its 2012 budget, according to a BLM news release.

Southwest Colorado’s BLM office still is determining how much of its budget will be cut, said spokesperson Shannon Borders.

Local schools are seeing a clearer picture of how sequestration will affect their budgets.

Ignacio School District is losing 6 to 10 percent, or about $700,000, of impact aid it receives from the government, said Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto.

The district relies on the aid, which gives schools on federal land that cannot collect property-tax revenue, financial assistance.

The district also could see $20,000 to $25,000 in Title 1 funding – money to schools that have a high percentage of students from low-income families – cut, Fuschetto said.

All school districts in La Plata County will see a reduction in special-education funding.

The San Juan Board of Cooperative Education Services, which provides services and programs to local schools with federal money, is losing about $120,000 of its funding, said executive director Randy Boyer.

School districts will have to pick up more of the cost, but students should not see an impact in the decrease in funds as the services are all federally mandated, Boyer said.

San Juan BOCES also is seeing about 10 percent cut in Colorado Perkins funds and 10 percent in Title 3 money, which provides education for English-language learners.

The region has about 60 to 70 English-language students, Boyer said.

Durango School District Chief Financial Officer Laine Gibson could not be reached for comment.

Fort Lewis College will see a 5.2 percent decrease in U.S. Department of Education discretionary grants, said spokesman Mitch Davis in an email to the Herald. The college hasn’t seen cuts to financial aid so far.

Local government entities are mostly in the dark as to how cuts will affect them.

Durango-La Plata County Airport hasn’t seen any cuts thus far or received word of cuts to come, said spokesman Don Brockus.

The airport’s second X-ray machine still is scheduled to arrive in May or June.

The city of Durango also has not received word of what funds it could lose, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

The only thing La Plata County knows for sure is it is losing $28,000 in PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funding, said Diane Sorensen, finance director for the county.

“We’ve heard (the government) is probably going to cut some grants, but they don’t know what amount and don’t know when,” Sorensen said.

Colorado is seeing a 5.1 percent reduction in PILT funding, according to a letter from former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to county commissioners. The funds are given to counties that can’t collect property tax because of federal land in the county.

Counties across the state received $393 million in PILT money in 2012, the letter said.

The Colorado Hospital Association told Mercy Regional Medical Center it will lose $5.4 million during a 10-year period, said CFO Jane Strobel in an email.

“At this time, Mercy has no plans to cut programs,” she said. “We recognize that we need to make adjustments as to how we operate. ... We are expanding primary and specialty-care services in a directed effort that both promotes community wellness and also helps us respond to the financial challenges ahead.”

jdahl@durangoherald.com

Visitors explore the Cliff Palace ruins of Mesa Verde National Park during a ranger-guided tour. The park’s budget was reduced 35,000 with sequestration cuts. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Visitors explore the Cliff Palace ruins of Mesa Verde National Park during a ranger-guided tour. The park’s budget was reduced 35,000 with sequestration cuts.

A tour group makes its way along a path leading into the Cliff Palace ruins at Mesa Verde National Park. The park is hoping some of its 35,000 in cuts will be restored in the 2014 budget. Enlargephoto

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

A tour group makes its way along a path leading into the Cliff Palace ruins at Mesa Verde National Park. The park is hoping some of its 35,000 in cuts will be restored in the 2014 budget.