February 28, 2013 10:10:26 AM
Local officials are taking a wait-and-see approach on the looming sequestration, with $85 billion in automatic budget cuts slated to begin tomorrow barring an 11th hour compromise between Republicans and Democrats.
Columbus Air Force Base is expected to take a hard hit, with nearly 500 civilian employees possibly seeing reduced paychecks as soon as mid-April due to nearly six months of four-day work weeks.
Last week, Col. Jim Sears said he was "deeply, deeply concerned" about the effects the unpaid furloughs might have on morale and effectiveness if Congress fails to pass a balanced deficit reduction plan that President Barack Obama is willing to sign. Obama will meet with congressional leaders later today to continue discussions, which are at a standstill.
If sequestration does take place, the effect on CAFB would have a spillover effect on Lowndes County and Columbus, Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders said Wednesday afternoon.
"When you cut someone's salary by 20 percent, that affects the discretionary spending in the county, which would eventually affect us," Sanders said.
Sanders is also concerned the county could be impacted if the air traffic control tower at Golden Triangle Regional Airport is closed -- a possibility the Federal Aviation Administration says could happen at as many as seven airports across the state, including GTRA. Though the airport could still function, albeit at a slower pace, this, too, could affect CAFB, which is using a runway at the airport while their main runway is being upgraded.
Otherwise, Sanders expects the county to escape the brunt of the impact.
"Our budget's set," he said. "We might not be able to apply for a federal grant here or there, but as of right now, everything we have in the pipeline will still happen."
Things are still uncertain in Oktibbeha County, where Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer is keeping a cautious watch on the proceedings.
"From what I was told, it will impact the state, and if it impacts the state, it's definitely going to trickle down to the county," Trainer said this morning. "How devastating an impact, I really can't say. I'm just hoping and praying our leaders can come to some kind of agreement."
Though they can try to make projections, it's tricky, he said. One thing that is certain is that no matter what happens, the county still must provide services to its citizens.
"At the end of the day, we've got to keep things moving," he said. "The ones who suffer most are the most vulnerable people."
He expects to learn more about the impact this weekend during a meeting of the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.
One area of particular concern for many is the threat to education and educational programs. Mississippi -- perpetually cash-strapped in the public school arena -- is expected to lose approximately $5,486,000 in funding for primary and secondary education, with around 80 teaching positions on the chopping block.
According to a press release from the White House, the cuts will result in 12,000 fewer students served and approximately 20 fewer schools receiving funding. Programs expected to be affected include work-study and HeadStart.
The Columbus Municipal School District has not yet received word on federal fund allocations for 2013-2014, Anthony Brown, Assistant Superintendent of Federal & Special Programs, said this morning. He expects to learn more March 19 during a federal programs application training session by the Mississippi Department of Education.
Likewise, the Lowndes County School District is waiting to find out how they will be impacted if sequestration takes place, though they have already been told they are likely to lose some federal programs funding, Superintendent Lynn Wright said Wednesday.
Finding out quickly is particularly critical right now, with both the city and county school districts in the midst of beginning their budget planning sessions for next school year.
"I think everybody is in the same boat, especially all public entities," Wright said. "We're all concerned about what kind of impact it will have, and we're hoping and praying it won't be a significant impact. But we all realize there's going to have to be some budget cuts for us to ever begin to climb out of what we're in as a country."
But Sanders had a less understanding take on the situation, attributing threats of sequestration to brute political maneuvering.
"I think a lot of the scare tactics the press and the Democrats are using are to force the Republicans to come around to their side," Sanders said. "They talk about how the Republicans won't compromise, but the Democrats won't, either."
People around the country are watching the proceedings closely as well. A Gallup poll conducted this week indicated 57 percent of Americans believe sequestration will have a negative impact on the economy, with 44 percent believing it will harm their personal finances.
Republicans take a particularly dim view on the situation, with 64 percent saying they expect sequestration to harm the economy and 54 percent saying it will directly impact their finances.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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