Sequestration Will Have Effects On Polk Services

County officials prepare for possible federal budget cuts.


Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:44 p.m.

LAKELAND | Children, the elderly and people with HIV/AIDS could be among the first in Polk County to feel the effects of automatic federal budget cuts if they are triggered Friday, according to local groups contacted this week.

Facts

Nancy Woolcock, the district's assistant superintendent of learning support, said sequestration will result in a loss of jobs.

The federal government is scheduled to enact $85 billion in immediate cuts Friday, and $1.2 trillion in reductions over 10 years, unless Congress acts first. Those spending cuts are part of the Budget Control Act, which was passed in August 2011, and frequently referred to as the sequester.

They are evenly split between defense spending — with spending on wars exempt — and discretionary domestic spending, which exempts most spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicaid, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

HEALTH DEPARTMENT

The Polk County Health Department can expect to see cutbacks if the state does, although the amount is undetermined, said Pamela Crain, Health Department spokeswoman.

The largest public-health grants that could be affected include one of the department's more-popular programs, the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Another is the Ryan White Grant, which provides care that uninsured people with HIV/AIDS couldn't afford otherwise. The Polk County Health Department has a large HIV/AIDS program.

Chronic disease prevention — a growing emphasis nationwide — and childhood immunizations are other areas likely to be impacted, according to information provided by the local health department from the Florida Department of Health.

Statewide, 7,950 fewer children will receive vaccinations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. A local estimate wasn't available immediately Tuesday, but the Polk Health Department is a major supplier of free childhood vaccinations.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which gives some Florida counties money, is expected to lose, too. There will be fewer than 1,016 Florida women getting screening through it if sequestration occurs, according to the CDC.

The Polk County Health Department used to screen women ages 50 to 64 through the Florida Breast and Cervical Cancer Program. When its adult health program became less active, that service stopped being available, Crain said.

The Florida Department of Health is trying to be positive as the deadline approaches.

"After careful budget review, we believe that the impact will be minimal if these widespread budget cuts, referred to as "sequestration," take place on March 1," the state department said in talking points to its local units. "We will continue to put the needs of the people first and foremost and move forward."

PRE-K

In the area of social services, a number of Polk programs stand to lose money related to sequestration, including subsidized day care, housing and meals for the elderly.

Polk could lose as much as $200,000 for school readiness, enough to impact day-care services for up to 55 children during any given month.

"We expect to lose between $170,000 and $200,000," or nearly 1.5 percent of the county's $14 million budget for subsidized school readiness services, said Gilbert Rincon, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County.

Rather than cut children currently enrolled in services, the agency will attempt to cut back on new enrollments, Rincon said. "We're looking at what can be done."

HOUSING

People who are on a waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers also may take a hit, though housing officials say they're taking steps to reduce costs and spread the pain rather than cut services.

"Our goal is for no one to lose a voucher," said Benjamin Stevenson, executive director of the Lakeland Housing Authority, which oversees about 1,200 housing vouchers that low-income people can use to help pay their rent.

In anticipation of cuts resulting from sequestration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests housing agencies and organizations that manage vouchers consider a number of steps. These include adjusting allowances for utilities and moving costs, and increasing minimum rents.

Stevenson said his agency has been taking such measures, and if need be will dip into reserve funds to ensure that no one loses their home.

"Hopefully we won't have to tap too deeply," he said.

SCHOOLS

Sequestration would also impact the federal Title I program, resulting in 749 teachers losing their jobs statewide, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Title I grants under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provide financial assistance to schools with high numbers of children from low-income families to help them meet educational performance standards. Sequestration could result in a $54.5 million reduction in funding statewide, and 95,183 fewer students would be served, according to federal estimates.

"We have proactively met with all of our Title One school principals and advised them that a budget cut was anticipated," said Martin Young, the Polk County School District's director of human capital and management.

"We asked that as they begin to plan the staffing of their school sites for the 2013-2014 school year that they anticipate and reduce their Title I budget and plan to re-purpose their Title I paid staff where possible."

The district will try to find positions that match a teacher's certification in vacant positions, Young said..

State officials are projecting 16,440 fewer special education students in Florida will receive support. Special-education grants to states provide assistance to help meet the additional costs of providing educational services to children with disabilities.

Money under this program supports the salaries of special education teachers; costs associated with service personnel, such as speech therapists, physical therapists, and psychologists; and the use of technology that helps in classrooms.

As a result of across-the-board cuts, Florida schools will lose $31.1 million in funding for special education grants, supporting 375 fewer jobs, according to federal estimates.

Nancy Woolcock, the district's assistant superintendent of learning support, said sequestration will result in a loss of jobs paid for with federal dollars.

"The amount is yet to be determined until the final federal budget is finalized," she said. "I have held back 9 percent this year in preparation for the loss this year. Anything this year that is less than 9 percent will assist with the cuts next year."

FIRST RESPONDERS

One area where Polk apparently won't be affected is in firefighting and emergency-medical services. Though Florida is in line to lose nearly $2.5 million in grants and funding for firefighters and other first responders, Polk won't lose any money, Polk County Fire Rescue spokesman Brad Ruhman said.

"The only grants that we receive come from the Homeland Security program, and we've been told they will be decreasing," Ruhman said.

"But we only receive $34,000 and have a budget of $65 million; what we receive is not a lot."

SUN 'N FUN

According to Sun 'n Fun spokeswoman Sandy Bridges, the yearly fly-in will go on with or without sequestration.

"If sequestration happens we may not get Thunderbirds, but the rest is covered by private companies," Bridges said.

Normally, the FAA sends about fifty air traffic controllers to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport to help out with the event, but if the airport's control tower is closed because of sequestration, those controllers may not be coming.

But Bridges said big back-up plans are in place.

"We've had a fly-in for the past 40 years and for 20 of them Lakeland didn't even have a control tower," Bridges said.

"We have 3,000 volunteers that help put this event on, and they come with a myriad of experience, including retired air traffic controllers.

"We'll be fine. We'll be safe and secure due to the level of expertise our volunteers bring."

[ Ledger reporters Robin Williams Adams, Merissa Green, Eric Pera and Clifford Parody contributed to this report. ]

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