Sequester would be felt many ways here

Local agencies weigh how best to deal with impending federal cuts

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Cuts imminent as Senate rejects stopgap plan

WASHINGTON — Squabbling away the hours, the Senate swatted aside last-ditch plans to block $85 billion in broad-based federal spending reductions Thursday as President Barack Obama and Republicans blamed each other for the latest outbreak of gridlock and the administration readied plans to put the cuts into effect.

So entrenched were the two parties that the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the day's session with a prayer that beseeched a higher power to intervene.

"Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves," he said of cuts due to take effect sometime today.

Here is a look at how the spending reductions could affect Clark County:

• Unemployment: Federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits will probably be affected by the budget cuts, said Sheryl Hutchison of the state Employment Security Department. She said ESD won't know exactly how those benefits will be affected until the U.S. Department of Labor provides instructions to the states. "There are several ways they could implement it," she said.

• City of Vancouver: Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said the federal funding most at risk would be the 2013 formula funds through Community Development Block Grants and HOME programs, which may be reduced by 10 to 25 percent. The HOME program helps develop low-income housing.

Contracted funds, such as the SAFER grant that's paying for 13 firefighters this year, wouldn't be at risk, Holmes said.

• Federal employees: Many of the 3,300 active federal employees who work in Clark County could face mandatory unpaid days off, said Jessica Klement, of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. Furloughs for federal workers in the county could impact the local economy because those employees will have less money to spend at local businesses, she said.

According to the organization's data on federal workers, about 900 federal employees have Veteran Affairs jobs in Clark County. Luckily for them, the Department of Veterans Affairs is exempt from the sequester.

About 1,200 federal employees work in Clark County for the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency, Klement said. More than 200 federal workers are employed in Clark County through the National Park Service.

• Parks: Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the National Park Service's Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, said sequestration could impact some jobs at her site. Those affected could include four or five paid summer student interns, one summer seasonal worker, one fee collector and two staff member jobs that might require moderate furloughs.

"It would be a 5 percent impact," Fortmann said of the overall cuts to the site.

Some maintenance services could also be limited. And the park has already stopped all non-mandatory training and travel for employees, she said.

"We want people to know that the parks will remain safe and the resources will remain protected," Fortmann said.

The Park Service's management of Pearson Air Museum wouldn't be affected by the cuts, she noted.

• Homelessness: More homeless and formerly homeless people could hit Clark County streets, according to Diane McWithey, the executive director of Share, an agency that operates anti-poverty programs including shelters and "transitional" housing for people climbing out of homelessness. Transitional housing is what could get hit first and worst, McWithey said: as many as half of the 125 households in Share's transitional ASPIRE program, who now have their own subsidized apartment units, could lose their housing vouchers.

"People who are getting stable will lose their rental support and become homeless again," she said. "And our shelter system can't absorb them."

There's no estimate of how many people could become homeless in the state, but a nationwide estimate by the Coalition on Human Needs says as many as 100,000 formerly homeless people could lose their housing.

• Hungry seniors: Meals on Wheels, based in Portland but serving Clark as well as Multnomah and Washington counties, is bracing itself for a 5 percent cut from the 37 percent of its budget that comes from federal funding. "We don't think it will be a huge amount of money," spokeswoman Julie Piper Finlay said. "But we will definitely feel the pinch."

Meals on Wheels serves an average of 138,000 meals to 2,800 senior citizens in Clark County annually, Finlay said, and also operates eight local meal sites, from downtown Vancouver to rural Amboy and Ridgefield to Washougal. Meals on Wheels provides the only meal of the day for an estimated 17 percent of its total area clientele of approximately 60,000.

"We are looking at ways to reduce our costs internally," Finlay said, "and we are also very much turning to our corporate and individual sponsors." Since it was launched in the 1970s, she said, Meals on Wheels has always figured that it would rely mostly on community partners. "We always knew federal funding would never be enough," she said.

• Bonds: Interest rates tied to $4.8 million worth of federal bonds spent on the westward extension of Scotton Way are expected to increase when sequestration takes effect. Battle Ground used low-interest Recovery Zone Economic Development bonds to pay for the half-mile project.

Fiscal wrangling in Washington, D.C., is expected to affect the bond market, Battle Ground City Manager John Williams said, driving rates up. The city has begun discussing with its bond brokers just how much extra money the city would have to spend. That likely won't become clear until more is known about the sequester.

• Clark County: The county anticipates funding across all departments to be cut by around $1 million. Primary areas of concern are in public health and community services. But all departments receiving grants are likely to be affected.

The community development department is looking at cuts to its weatherization and energy assistance programs for low-income families.

The public works department is worried that federal furloughs could result in delays for roadwork reviews.

County Administrator Bill Barron said if the cuts do occur the county will "do the best we can to make sure our constituents and our citizens don't get negatively impacted by this."

• Public health: Clark County Public Health receives about $2.3 million in federal funding each year. The anticipated 9 percent cut would reduce the county's funding by about $200,000 per year, said Marni Storey, deputy director of Clark County Public Health.

The federal dollars make up about 25 percent of the department's total budget.

Sequestration cuts will affect numerous public health programs, including emergency preparedness, chronic disease prevention and communicable disease response, Storey said.

In Clark County, the cuts could mean 400 fewer babies and children would receive dental care from the Baby Childhood Dentistry program, which provides low-income children with access to dental care during the first year of life.

The cuts will also mean 22 people with HIV will lose case management services, leading to sicker people and increased HIV transmission, according to public health officials.

Seven families with children with special health care needs will lose services. The program provides specialized home visit nursing services to the most medically fragile.

The Women, Infants & Children Nutrition Program will drop 1,459 Clark County residents. Funding for childhood immunizations will also be reduced, meaning 280 fewer children will be vaccinated.

Sequestration cuts will also reduce support for drinking water inspections and reduce prevention work for diabetes, heart attacks, stroke and cancer, according to health officials.

• Clark County Community Services: Numerous Community Services projects rely on federal funds and grants. If cuts take place, some of the projects may not get fully funded, said Vanessa Gaston, department director.

For 2013, the department submitted 13 applications for Community Development Block Grant funds, requesting a total of $1.7 million. Projects include five sidewalk projects, two park projects, four housing projects, a mental health facility roof and a new classroom for Head Start.

The county also submitted five applications for $900,000 in HOME funds. Projects include tenant-based rental assistance, new construction of senior housing, two low-income housing rehabilitation projects and land acquisition for Habitat for Humanity.

All block grant and HOME funds must be used to benefit households or areas of the county that are low-income.

The county's 2013 Substance Abuse Block Grant is estimated to be reduced by $87,431 as a result of sequestration. After cuts, the grant is estimated to be about $1.6 million.

Funding will also be reduced for the county's Community Service Block Grant, Emergency Solutions Grant and Low Income Energy Assistance Program.

• Courts: Clark County Drug Court receives about $950,000 per year in federal grants that pay for helping children affected by methamphetamine use, juvenile drug and alcohol treatment, mentors for juveniles, veterans treatment court and educational and vocational work for people who are in recovery. Brad Finegood, Drug Court coordinator, said it's unclear whether there would be across-the-board reductions to each grant or whether some of the grants would be eliminated.

"It's all a big wait-and-see," Finegood said. "You brace for the worst and hope for the best."

• Law enforcement: Clark County Sheriff's Office Finance Manager Darin Rouhier said that he wasn't sure there would be a noticeable impact to enforcement. He anticipates a reduction of 5 percent from the $500,000 that the agency receives in federal grants, but didn't know which types of services it would affect. "Certainly it's not good, any reduction in revenue is difficult, but I don't think the sky is falling here," he said. Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said the agency didn't know how the sequestration would affect the agency.

• Columbia River Crossing: Sequestration could cut almost $150 million from the federal New Starts grant program, said Columbia River Crossing spokeswoman Mandy Putney. That's the Federal Transit Administration program CRC leaders are banking on for $850 million to build a light rail extension into Vancouver as part of the proposed $3.4 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.

Still, Putney said the CRC should not be seriously impacted because the project is well positioned for funding -- assuming the Washington and Oregon legislatures both line up state money this year.

• Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program: LIHEAP, as it's known, serves approximately 3,200 to 3,500 households in Clark County. But the federally funded program, administered locally by Clark Public Utilities, likely won't take a hit from the sequester. That's because top LIHEAP managers planned for it.

• Education: Statewide, sequestration cuts in education include $11.6 million for primary and secondary education (160 teacher and aide jobs); $11.3 million for education of children with disabilities (140 teachers, aides and staff) and about 1,000 children cut from Head Start and Early Head Start services.

At the Clark County level, definitive numbers are not as readily available. The county is home to 10 school districts, Educational Service District 112, Washington State University Vancouver and Clark College. Steven Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools, said federal cuts would result in job losses for teachers and support personnel who provide direct services to students. A 7.8 percent cut is equivalent to 15.5 certificated teachers or 20 classified staff.

Webb added the potential impact of sequestration on the district includes the elimination of Family-Community Resource Centers in schools with the highest concentration of needs.

The district doesn't expect the cuts to kick in until the next school year. The district has set aside $1 million in reserves to offset the cuts.

Educational Opportunities for Children and Families has 619 slots in its Head Start program in three counties, but mostly in Clark County.

"With sequestration, we anticipate losing between 45 and 60 of those slots," said Carol Foster, the agency's executive director.