Impending federal cuts could cost Robins employees $83 million in earnings

chwright@macon.comJanuary 28, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Looming automatic defense spending cuts could mean an $83 million loss in earnings among civilian employees at Robins Air Force Base, which translates to a $54 million loss in discretionary spending, according to figures the 21st Century Partnership released Monday.

Robert McMahon, president of the partnership and former Warner Robins Air Logistics Center commander, gave a brief presentation to local political, business and spiritual leaders at the Museum of Aviation about the potential impacts of national cuts scheduled for March 1, encouraging them to prepare for the economic and emotional fallout if Congress doesn’t stop the cuts.

“What is quintessential to remember is there are people, Americans, federal employees, who will be adversely affected if our president and our federal congress do not do what we’ve asked them to do -- and that is govern and lead our nation,” McMahon said.

Congress has until March 1 to cut federal spending or face automatic cuts expected to carve out $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. About $500 billion would come from military funding. Congress passed the sequestration bill in 2011 to force themselves to address the federal debt. The cuts originally were scheduled to take place Jan. 2, but Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to a postponement.

“What is important for a defense community like ours to remember is those cuts ... are over and above a reduction by some $487 billion that was already put in place for our defense budget,” McMahon told the audience.

McMahon, who is a retired Air Force major general, gave a glimpse of reality for Robins Air Force Base, Middle Georgia’s economic engine, if the automatic cuts go into effect.

According to guidelines from the U.S. secretary of state and Air Force leaders, civilian employees could face 22 days of unpaid leave, and depot-maintenance would be halted.

“In most cases, a repair of an aircraft takes somewhere between 120 and 300 days,” McMahon said. “If we were to defer an aircraft, the impact would carry on into the next fiscal year.”

Taking the average salary of $65,000 for the 15,000 civilian employees at Robins, the 21st Century Partnership estimated furloughs would cost each employee about $5,400. That comes out to about $83 million in earnings, and $54 million in discretionary spending, according to McMahon.

“I can’t tell you whether or not one or all 15,000 employees will be affected this way,” he said. “... but I believe it is my responsibility to share with this community that which I understand today and how it may adversely affect each and every one of us.”

McMahon said mental health professionals were invited to the forum to be warned of the possible financial stresses the salary declines for Robins employees and the overall economy could have.

Shannon Harvey, chief executive officer of River Edge Behavioral Health Center, said her organization will begin disseminating information on resilience and how to deal with financial stresses.

“Treatment is effective, and recovery can be expected,” she told reporters after McMahon’s speech.

Morgan Law, president of the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has just over 1,000 members. About 80 percent are small businesses, and the remainder are mostly defense contractors, all of which will feel the impact of the scenarios McMahon relayed -- especially the loss in earnings and discretionary spending.

“That’s the kind of thing that could make or break a small business,” Law said, adding impacts to those businesses affect the community by extension.

McMahon said effects of the looming cuts already have begun to impact Middle Georgia.

Civilian hiring has been frozen, and any non-permanent employees have been told they could see an end to their contracts. Non-emergency facility projects are on hold, leaving small businesses that depend on such contracts without the revenue. All non-critical travel has been canceled.

“That has a direct impact on a community such as ours with the number of conferences we hold there that our hotels and motels and restaurants rely on for part of their revenue,” McMahon said.

Houston County Commissioner Tom McMichael said though Robins Air Force Base is an important part of the entire Middle Georgia economy, it’s vital to Houston County because that’s where most employees live.

He said it’s hard to prepare for exact scenarios that would impact the county, but it would definitely affect the residents one way or another in an area that has been stable throughout the national recession.

“We would see lots of things happen in Houston County that we quite frankly don’t want to think about and we are not accustomed to,” McMichael said.

McMahon warned everyone in the room to get ready and to prepare their flocks.

“In a perfect world, 45 days from now, each of you will have accused me of crying wolf,” he said. “And I pray that, in fact, that is what occurs.”

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