Federal budget cuts could affect National Guard, courts, parks
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Looming federal budget cuts would lead to layoffs in the West Virginia National Guard, cutbacks in the state's National Parks properties and could even lead to hang-ups in the federal court system.
Unless Congress acts fast, the federal budget automatically will be cut by $85 billion this Friday as part of a sequestration measure passed by federal lawmakers in 2011.
Congress approved the across-the-board cuts as an incentive to coming up with a better, smarter budget. So far, those efforts have failed.
West Virginia National Guard spokesman Lt. David Lester said sequestration cuts would immediately force the Guard to lay off 55 employees around the state, mostly from its staff of aircraft technicians.
"We've got guys, we'll be able to cover the slack. But anytime you lose maintenance positions like that...it's going to have an effect," Lester said.
He said cuts would affect the Guard's ability to respond to state emergencies.
"While our pay comes from the state, much of our equipment is bought and maintained with federal funding. So if that is cut, then we will have less resources to respond with ready and reliable equipment for emergencies across the state," he said.
In addition to layoffs, Lester estimates sequestration would cause more than 900 Guardsmen to be furloughed. The cutbacks would begin in mid-April, following a 45-day notification period. Affected employees would work four-day workweeks for 22 weeks.
The Guard also would institute a hiring freeze if sequester-related cuts go into effect. In all, the moves would save the Guard about $30 million, Lester said.
"It's a direct effect on a lot of technicians and their families. We are hopeful there will be resolution in Congress, but we're prepared as an organization to follow the law that we have to," he said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers, chief justice for the U.S. District Court's Southern District of West Virginia, said budget cuts would not immediately affect the state's federal courts. Prolonged cuts could interrupt the day-to-day workings of the courts, however.
Chambers said the court has been preparing for the possibility of sequestration cuts for months. Administrators have tried to cut back on spending and avoid filling some open positions.
He said the courts should be able to operate without significant interruption, at least temporarily, if Congress misses its deadline.
"We're probably good for a few months, but if this goes on much longer or these cuts get much deeper, it will begin to have an impact on the court system across the country," Chambers said.
"If you have deep cuts...we'll have trouble paying for juries. It may start affecting our ability to supervise people on probation. It could, over time, complicate having hearings and proceedings in court."
Chambers said the country's bigger, busier and more expensive courts likely would feel those effects sooner than West Virginia.
Tim Goode, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshal's southern West Virginia district, said sequester-related cuts would lead to furloughs in the office.
Goode said he is not sure how significant the furloughs would be, but everyone from U.S. Marshal John Foster down to the office staff would be subject to the forced time off.
That could cause problems for the marshals' warrant sweeps and sex offender investigations. Goode said the marshals' primary responsibility is protecting federal courts and transporting prisoners to and from court, deputies likely will be pulled from warrant or sex offender duty to cover the courthouses.
"Since everyone will have to have the same number of days off, we'll set up a schedule so we have some deputies off while other deputies are working," he said.
Jennifer Mummart, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said sequester-related cuts would lead to staff reductions and other cutback at park properties.
"It would hit all parks in a very similar way," she said.
That would include the New River Gorge National River and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Mummart said hours at park visitors centers would be cut back, as would park rangers' hours. She said parks also might have to leave positions vacant when someone quits or retires.
"We remain very hopeful that Congress will be able to avoid these cuts, but we're making plans just like every other federal agency has been asked to do," she said.
The White House released a report detailing how much money West Virginia would lose through sequester-related cuts. Those include:
*$1.4 million in operation funds for the Army
*$96,000 in Justice Assistance Grants, which support law enforcement, corrections, prosecution and courts
*$247,000 for job search assistance, referral and placement
*$52,000 for child vaccinations
*$177,000 to help upgrade the state's ability to respond to public health threats
*$430,000 in grants to prevent and treat substance abuse
*$62,000 to the state Department of Health and Human Resources for HIV testing
*Up to $39,000 for services to domestic violence victims
*$160,000 for nutrition assistance for seniors
Some areas of government, like military members' paychecks and Social Security, are immune to the cuts.
The West Virginia Association of Housing Agencies estimates more than 1,500 state residents will lose their housing assistance if sequestration cuts go through. "The majority of our families are the working poor who struggle to make ends meet. Receiving assistance with their monthly rent is the only thing keeping many of them afloat," association President D. J. Haynes said in a statement.