Juneau prepares for federal sequestration

It’s less than a week since the federal budget cuts known as sequestration took effect, and Southeast Alaska communities are starting figure out what the reductions might mean for their bottom lines.

In Juneau, the cuts will affect city and school district operations, as well as services at local nonprofits.

City Manager Kim Kiefer says some departments will see small reductions due to the sequester cuts. Capital City Fire and Rescue, Juneau Police and Capital Transit all get federal grants. But some are guaranteed through next fiscal year, while others supply only a small portion of each department’s budget.

A number of projects at the city-owned Juneau International Airport are funded largely by the Federal Aviation Administration. But rather than losing money, Kiefer says airport officials are worried that checks could be delayed because of federal layoffs.

“So we’re just watching – very aware of it – and figuring out, okay, are there some services that we have to be really careful about right now that we were counting on having federal funding and if that doesn’t come through, what do we do?” Kiefer said.

In recent years, the federal government’s largest contributions to city coffers have come from two subsidies – Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools – designed to mitigate local revenue losses due to declining timber production. While those programs are not part of sequestration, they’ve long been targeted for reduction, and Kiefer does not expect them to continue beyond this year.

The Juneau Assembly will hold Finance Committee meetings in April to make revisions to the fiscal year 2014 budget, which takes effect in July. At that point, Kiefer expects to have more details about sequestration and the loss of other federal funding.

“It just adds to the challenges that we face anyway,” she said. “There’s uncertainty as we’re looking at projections for our sales tax or property tax or interest income. So, it’s just one more piece of uncertainty.”

Most of the revenue for the Juneau School District’s $92 million budget comes from the State of Alaska and the city. But Superintendent Glen Gelbrich says the district receives federal grants for programs that target disadvantaged and special education students, as well as staff training.

Sequestration will cut about 5 percent from those programs, for a total of about $123,000 a year, according to Gelbrich. He says his goal will be to absorb the cuts without reducing staff.

“Wherever we have the opportunity to reduce some supplies, wherever we have the opportunity to reduce professional development, we will do that,” Gelbrich said. “When it comes to special education needs, we’ll have to tighten up pretty hard.”

Gelbrich says federal cuts won’t have a major effect on next year’s budget, which the school board is currently putting together.

While it’s tough to swallow reductions to programs for kids, Gelbrich says cuts to professional development for teachers shouldn’t be overlooked.

“It’s very important. Part of the foundation of our effort to have more kids succeed is building on the strengths that our staff already has,” Gelbrich said. “Just as we want kids to get better, we as adults, we want to get better at what we do so kids benefit from that.”

Local nonprofits are also preparing for sequestration. Catholic Community Services offers home health care and food programs for seniors and families throughout Southeast Alaska.

Executive Director Jean Strafford says cuts could total about $103-thousand dollars across all CCS programs.

“The main programs that we’ve been notified right now that will be affected are our senior centers,” Strafford said. “So, the senior meal program at the different locations around Southeast, and the home delivered meal programs, and senior transportation.”

Strafford worries some federal grants that are passed through state and municipal agencies could be reduced as well. She says she’ll try to avoid staffing cuts, and would not deny services to any clients. Rather she says the agency will have to reduce how often those services are provided.

“So, some communities that have five days of Meals on Wheels service may have to go down to four,” she said.

The biggest effect of sequestration throughout Alaska is the potential loss of federal jobs. But nobody is saying exactly how many are threatened. Local federal offices contacted for this story referred all questions to spokespeople in Washington, D.C., who offered generic information about cuts nationwide.

Alaska continues to rank near the top of the nation in terms of federal funding per capita.

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