Sequester uncertainty has local groups feeling anxious
The director of local Head Start programs says cutting services to children would be a last resort if the federal budget sequester goes into effect Friday, but she isn’t sure the organization could avoid it.
Cuts to grants mean students in work-study programs at UW-Whitewater could see their pay reduced next year, but it’s not clear by how much.
The Janesville School District’s chief financial officer said trying to guess what would happen to the district’s funding would be a “shot in the dark.”
With Congress appearing unlikely to avert the billions of dollars in defense and domestic spending cuts known as sequestration set to take effect Friday, local groups are bracing for reduced funding from the federal government.
How bad that blow would be, though, and how it would affect services ranging from early-childhood education to meals for homebound seniors remains to be seen.
Many local organizations that rely on federal funding are stuck in a holding pattern, waiting to see what happens in Washington and hoping the punch won’t be too hard.
“We’re holding our breath, just like everyone is, with the hope that the impact will be minimal,” said Connie Robers, executive director of the Head Start program that serves Rock and Walworth counties.
The Obama administration released estimates over the weekend showing how the $85 billion in cuts would affect each state if Congress does not act. The estimates do little to measure how the sequester would impact individual school districts or programs.
There’s still the possibility that congressional leaders and the White House could pass another spending bill to avert the sequester or replace it after the March 1 deadline.
Officials in a range of fields said services likely would not be reduced immediately Friday if the cuts go into effect.
As they filter down to the state and local levels, however, they could mean painful cuts to services as organizations scramble to reduce costs.
Janesville School District Chief Financial Officer Keith Pennington said Monday he did not want to guess what the long-term impact of the sequester would be because the district does not know what kind of cut it would be facing.
According to the Obama administration, Wisconsin would lose $8.5 million in federal funding for primary and secondary education over the fiscal year.
It is impossible to know how much of that money would have gone to Janesville, Pennington said, because so many factors go into distributing federal funds to school districts. Some wealthier districts receive less federal money, and some poorer ones receive more, he said.
Janesville is in the middle of the spectrum.
“You just can’t predict how much will end up in our pocket,” Pennington said.
The district has not discussed furloughs or any other reductions in services with staff, he said, and there would be no immediate impacts in the days following the Friday deadline.
“I can’t say what we’ll do when we don’t know what’s going to happen, yet,” he said.
Federal funding pays for 475 of the 510 children in the local Head Start program, Robers said.
More than $4 million comes from Washington to support education and health services for children from low-income families, Robers said, and its board is well aware of the threat it could face if the cuts go on as scheduled.
Funding for the program has not kept up with changes in the cost of living, and the need for Head Start services is greater than ever, she said.
“We have a long waiting list of children that are fully eligible for our program that right now we’re not able to serve,” Robers said. “So to think that we’ll have fewer resources in the future is a huge concern.”
The White House’s estimate indicates 900 children across Wisconsin would lose access to Head Start programs under the cuts.
Reducing services the program offers would be a last resort, Robers said, although she noted that there are not a lot of areas it could cut that don’t impact children and families.
Meals on Wheels
For Wisconsin seniors, advocates said, cuts to nutrition programs could threaten hundreds of thousands of home-delivered meals.
John Schnabl of the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources said 215,000 meals would be affected statewide, as programs such as Meals on Wheels scramble to fill the hole created by reduced federal funding. The Obama administration estimated nutrition programs for seniors would be cut by $643,000.
That cut could impact the number of meals delivered to homebound seniors or the kind of food provided, Schnabl said.
Meals delivered by Rock County’s program for homebound residents would be impacted by the cut, Rock County Council on Aging Director Joyce Lubben said. The extent of the impact is unknown. The worst-case scenario would a reduction in services, and the best would be a minimal cut that doesn’t impact recipients, she said.
Lubben said the potential impact of the sequester is unclear.
“I don’t know because we’ve never been through this before,” she said.
Students on financial aid and those working their way through school would feel the pinch of federal funding cuts, as well.
Connie Murray, associate director of financial aid at UW-Whitewater, said more than 700 students hold jobs in libraries, residence halls and academic departments as part of the university’s work-study program.
A cut to the federal money that provides most of the work-study program’s funding would give UW-Whitewater a choice: reduce the number of students who get jobs or reduce how much money each job pays, she said. It has chosen the latter.
A UW-Whitewater estimate showed that on average it would mean $67 less for each student over the school year, Murray said.
“Any time we lose any funding of this sort, students and/or parents are forced to borrow more to get their education paid for,” Murray said.
The change would not be felt immediately—the work-study program is funded through this school year, and the change would affect students in the coming fall.
Murray said UW-Whitewater’s estimate is based on a 5.1-percent cut to the program, which could end up being larger or smaller that what goes into effect.