Facing sequestration’s ‘uncharted water’

Mar. 14, 2013 @ 06:01 PM

It’s highly likely that budget-battle-fatigue has permeated the American public.

Partisan posturing and predictions of fiscal Armageddon have reverberated from the White House to Capitol Hill and back seemingly endlessly. The latest result – sequestration – seems designed by its very label to invite glazed eyes and numbed brains.

But as our leaders in Washington conduct their minuet of conflicting explanations of its causes and effects, and deftly attempt to shift blame to the other side, we’re beginning to see its real impact hit home here in Durham.

On Tuesday, Durham Public Schools said the across-the-board cuts being imposed as part of the latest budget non-resolution could cost the district $1.7 million during the next budget year.

And Wednesday, Durham Housing Authority officials met to continue wrestling with how to accommodate the funding reductions they will face as a result of sequestration. The authority anticipates losing about $3.5 million.

In the schools, officials say the greatest impact will be felt in a program that is designed to provide financial assistance to systems with high percentages of poor children. And Durham is very much one of those systems. “We have such a large percentage of disadvantaged students,” Heidi Carter, the chair of the school board observed. “More than 60 percent of our students are on free-and-reduced lunch.”

The district also expects to cut back on staff development spending and on career and technical education – an area of increased emphasis in recent years. “We’re really trying to strengthen that program and this makes that very difficult,” Carter said.

At the housing authority, officials optimistically think they can absorb much of the reduction in funds from Washington by drawing on reserves -- a solution they acknowledge will work only if the sequestration cuts are short-lived.

The severest impact will be on a program called Section 8 that provides low-income clients vouchers to help cover the cost of rent. As many as 187 families who otherwise could receive those vouchers may not be able to get them this year.

Beyond sequestration’s impact, the continuing budget uncertainty in Washington is a challenge to local officials. “Really, it’s more than just the sequester we’re having to deal with,” DHA Chief Financial Officer Jeff Causey said Wednesday.

Authority CEO Dallas Parks called it “uncharted water.”

Until our sharply divided leaders in Washington can come to some agreement, we’ll continue to wrestle with that uncharted water and the very real effects of our national fiscal policy – or lack of one.