Automatic cuts could lead to long waits to enter Robins Air Force Base

wcrenshaw@macon.comFebruary 26, 2013 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- If automatic federal budget cuts kick in Friday, employees at Robins Air Force Base may see the impact as soon as they show up at the gates -- at least once furloughs kick in.

The cuts, known as sequestration, are expected to mean 22 days of furlough for each of the about 15,000 civilian employees on base, including security forces personnel who check identification of every person entering Robins each day.

Col. Mitchel Butikofer, 78th Air Base Wing commander, said in a news conference Tuesday that could mean waits of up to 45 minutes to get on base. However, employees have to get 30 days notice, so it could be April before that impact is seen. Discussions are being held with units on base to see if adjustments can be made, such as shifting commercial deliveries to later in the day so that the commercial gate can be used by base personnel in the morning.

It’s just one of the many ways sequestration will affect base operations, he said. Furloughs and cuts could impact everything from building maintenance to the base fire department, as well as aircraft maintenance, which makes up the bulk of base operations.

The furloughs, which would continue through the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, would mean a 20-percent loss in pay for employees during that period. It’s still uncertain how the furloughs would be implemented, Butikofer said, and whether the employees would be eligible for unemployment. If the furloughs are to be taken one day a week, he said, the employees wouldn’t get unemployment, but they may be able to get the benefit if furloughs can be taken on consecutive days.

“We haven’t received guidance yet on how that is going to be implemented,” he said.

Meanwhile, the base is offering assistance to employees through the Employee Assistance Program and the Airman and Family Readiness Center. Specialists will be able to help with family budgeting issues to cope with the loss in pay.

“As you can probably imagine there is some anxiety out there,” Butikofer said. “We are encouraging our employees to makes plans for this potentiality.”

Sequestration is the mechanism aimed at curbing federal spending and the deficit. It would mean $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts over the next 10 years, with about $500 million of that impacting the military. Only entitlements would be exempted. The cuts are set to take place Friday if Congress can’t come to a budget agreement.

Education also affected

Outside of the base, the largest impact locally would be on schools, which are expected to lose $28.6 million in funding for primary and secondary education statewide this year alone, according to White House data.

Among the programs facing cuts is the federally-funded Title I, which is meant to help schools with low-income families.

In Houston County, $6 million in funding for Title I schools will be cut by about 8 percent, said Stephen Thublin, assistant superintendent of finance and business operations. About $4.5 million in funds for educating disabled children also will also be cut by about 8 percent.

Additionally, Houston schools Superintendent Robin Hines said the system may lose about $2 million in federal impact funds it gets as a result of serving military children. Those funds are given to offset the fact that the base does not pay property taxes.

Officials from Bibb County schools did not provide information regarding sequestration’s potential impact.

Just the prospect of sequestration already has affected the Houston school system. Hines said some vacant federally funded positions have been frozen in anticipation that the cuts will happen. Those savings may allow the school system to absorb the impact without resorting to furloughs itself.

School nutrition funding is considered an entitlement and is therefore exempt from the cuts.

Hines and Thublin said the biggest impact for the school system isn’t the direct loss of funds, but the overall economic impact from the furloughs.

Earlier the 21st Century Partnership, which works to support the base, estimated the furloughs would mean a loss of $84 million in pay for Robins employees, which will result in a $54 million loss in discretionary spending.

Hines said that will have a big impact on sales tax collections. The school gets a penny on the dollar from sales taxes to offset property taxes, and also gets a 1-percent special purpose local option sales tax.

“The Title I funds and students with disabilities funds are certainly of grave concern for me,” Hines said, “but it’s much more far reaching than just that. We need for our legislators to get together and solve this in the least impactful way they can.”

Telegraph writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report. To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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