Budget gridlock's impact felt beyond base

“For the past week, we’ve probably been discussing it every night, whether to apply to a civil sector job is the right move,” Bowman said. “And I gotta be honest with you. I still don’t know.”

Another 1,344 Defense Department civilians in Delaware like Bowman face that same uncertainty. All will lose one-fifth of their pay over the next eight months, the product of a 2011 law designed to force compromise on reducing the nation’s debt.

When President Barack Obama and Congress failed to reach an agreement by Friday, the law triggered an automatic $85 billion cut in spending through Sept. 30. Absent an agreement, most of those civilians who work for the Defense Department will lose as many as 22 days without pay, likely beginning in late April.

The budget cuts, known as sequestration, will touch many government programs, including education, health, labor and housing. State officials expect a loss of more than $17 million in those non-military programs. But most of those cuts could take weeks, even months, to trickle down to Delaware. And when they do, their impact isn’t expected to be as significant as those being made by the Department of Defense.

An actual dollar estimate for defense cuts in Delaware is not yet available. But one thing is certain: nowhere in Delaware will those defense budget cuts be felt more powerfully than in Dover, where 944 of those defense employees work at adjacent Dover Air Force Base.

The lost local money is staggering. Officials say workers could lose as much as $7.1 million in wages.

And when the base loses money, the community suffers. The base’s financial impact on Dover can be summed up in one word. “Significant,” city manager Scott Koenig said.

“I would say it’s probably the single biggest driver in Dover’s economy,” said Koenig. “Its impact to us is huge.”

He ticked off the reasons: jobs, housing, retirees who live and spend money here. Any dent in workers’ income, he said, would have a trickle-down effect in the community.

That worries business owners like Audrey Brodie, whose First Class Realty office is not far from the Dover base’s north gate. She said her business has a real stake in the outcome of the federal budget sequestration debate and its affect on military and civilian workers at Dover.

“We manage 228 properties and a large percentage are connected with the military, homeowners as well as tenants,” Brodie said. "We are seeing a lot of concern about the uncertainty. It puts people on edge.”

Cities are on edge, as well.

“The big issue, I think, for us, is if people take a 20 percent cut in pay, then they gotta figure out how to make that up,” Koenig said. “So are they going to be coming in asking for extensions on their utility bills? How are they going to pay their taxes?”

The city of Dover, Koenig explained, relies on payments being made, and made on time.

If furloughed workers fall behind on their bills, Koenig said, “How do they catch back up? Do we get to a point where they have to be cut off from service?”

A family plan

The Bowmans admit they don’t feel a sense of urgency, no fear that they can’t pay bills right now. Summer Bowman, a 33-year-old administrative analyst for the state, makes it clear that she doesn’t want the family to be seen as being one step from the poorhouse.

“It’s not like we’re not going to make a mortgage,” she said.

A former Air Force mechanic and medic, Summer said she worries less about her family’s ability to survive the cuts, and more about the military’s ability to remain trained, properly equipped and ready.

Andrew Bowman, however, is worried about his job, and searching for a new one. Summer, who just earned a master’s degree, said she’ll be even more motivated to look for something bigger and better if Andrew is furloughed.

And the family, including 11-year-old Jaden and 8-year-old Carter, is scaling back. “That back door that needs to get fixed, I’ll put that off,” Andrew said.

The basement in their three-bedroom home will remain largely unfinished. The family’s plans to shop for a new home have been shelved. They’ll cut back on the extras, like dinner out.

“I mean, the bills are still there,” Summer said. “They’re not going to go away.”

Families like the Bowmans are making those plans because of the way the Defense Department has outlined how budget cuts will be implemented. The federal cuts from sequestration hit hardest at the Defense Department because the military is shouldering half of the forced reduction. The impact falls on civilians like Bowman and his family because much of the defense budget is sheltered from the cuts and the military has less flexibility to spread the cuts around to limit the pain. Under current sequestration law, military pay, personnel and programs, as well as war-related accounts, cannot be cut and no bases can be closed.

So the result was an announcement from the Pentagon last month that about 750,000 civilian employees would be furloughed as part of the plan to reduce defense spending.

Other areas in Delaware also will suffer from those forced defense budget cuts. The state National Guard will experience the same spending reductions as the Air Force at Dover, although the Guard’s presence is far more widely spread across the state. That reduces the impact on any single community.

But it doesn’t reduce the impact on Guard families who will see the same 20 percent cut in pay. Federally funded pay for Guard civilians in Delaware will be reduced by an estimated $4.1 million if the furlough is carried out in full.

The ripple effect

Dover air base officials have not released new details for dealing with cuts. In January, Dover commander Col. Rick Moore said he would defer hiring that is not considered mission essential or war-related. He canceled the base’s 2013 air show and non-mission-essential travel, and said he would “incrementally fund” contracts.

2nd Lt. Remoshay Nelson said officials would know more after they “review and clear” Air Force and Pentagon budget-cutting plans this month. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday that the Air Force would cut back flying hours “effective immediately.”

In Dover, the effect of the air base cuts won’t be confined to just the city. They’ll ripple outward to communities like Camden, immediately south of Dover and near the base. Camden Mayor W.G. Edmanson II said that civilian and military employees are part of the fabric of his town.

“From our standpoint, we have a concern for our taxpayers and tax revenues, for people leaving or not coming to the community because they won’t be able to afford a home,” Edmanson said.

“It’s belt-tightening across the board. Everyone is going to be affected. You’d be blind not to see it. Unfortunately, it’s happening here first.”

There are huge consequences for military and civilian families alike, said Charles Matthews, a Camden resident who retired from a career with the YMCA of Dover.

“I’m not sure any of us really understand how the trickle-down effect is going to affect us, but I think it is going to affect us,” said Matthews, who blames politicians for forgetting their duty to do “what’s best for this country.”

“I don’t think they really think it’s going to happen,” Matthews said Friday. “Today’s the day, but it’s not really going to happen today. You have some funding that will get them through for the next 30, 60, 90 days, so it’s not urgent for them right now.”

Not everyone in Dover thinks the federal budget cuts, and resulting furlough, will be such a bad thing.

“I guess it’s tough choices,” said Todd Stachecki, who for 29 years has operated The Little Grocer on East Division Street, two blocks off U.S. 13 north of the base. He counts many from the base among his customers, including a lot of civilians, and doesn’t want to “wish them any bad luck.” But while the economy continues to struggle, and his store is “not quite as busy as it used to be,” Shachecki is also worried about the nation’s finances.

“Of course we’re concerned,” he said. “But we try not to be selfish. We also try to think of what’s best for the government. If everybody tightens their strings a little bit, we might be able to get through it together and be better off in the long run. Spending’s just gone overboard, and not being able to control it. And having a huge debt.

“It might be better to hurt a little bit now than hurt a whole lot more later.”

Several businesses near the base said they don’t expect to see a drop in customers after the cuts. Barber Michael Walters said he doesn’t get many federal civilians at Supreme Hair Design, although about half of his customers are airmen.

“I don’t expect it would affect us much,” said Walters, a former airman who has owned and operated his South Bay Road shop for the past four years.

But Walters is no fan of the cuts. “I think those guys need an increase, if anything,” he said. “Keepin’ it safe for us, you know?”

What's expected

Obama signed the executive order just after 8:30 Friday night to begin the automatic budget cuts. Federal agencies will receive the notice and start the process of cutting in the coming days.

A series of notifications are required for the Defense Department furloughs to take effect. Congress was notified Feb. 20, starting a 45-day clock during which no furloughs can take place. In mid-March, the Pentagon will send 30-day notifications to each employee identified by the services as a candidate for a furlough. If nothing changes between now and then, the Pentagon in late April will send a decision to employees, who then will have a one-week period to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The actual furloughs will start no earlier than late April, according to the Pentagon.

At the Dover Air Force Base Air Mobility Command Museum, a regional attraction overwhelmingly supported by volunteers, its two full-time government staffers were advised to prepare for cuts in their income.

“It’s going to affect the paid staff here,” said Museum Director Mike Leister. “At this point, we haven’t had any indication that there’s going to be a change in our operating hours or any affect on our programs.”

The museum, at the south end of the base, has restored and assembled 29 aircraft for public display spanning decades of Air Force and air cargo history, along with a wide assortment of aviation and airlift displays.

“We have 120 volunteers who provide so much of what we do,” Leister said. “We had a meeting with some of the volunteers and joked with them that they’ll be getting a 20 percent reduction in their pay, which means 20 percent from nothing.”

Union leaders at Dover are on high alert, keeping an eye on how the cuts and furloughs are executed. Leaders spent several days last week briefing Dover workers, 300 of whom are represented by Local 1709 of the American Federation of Government Employees. On Thursday, leaders met with Moore, the wing commander.

Andrew Bowman is not only a father and husband planning for the cuts. He’s the local’s chief steward.

“We’re working on a plan,” Bowman said. “It’s more about efficiency. I can’t give everybody off the same day. Those days have to be staggered. So how are we going to break that kind of stuff up?”

It’s also difficult to plan work schedules when requirements are fluid. “The workload changes so frequently day to day,” Bowman said.

That’s especially true at Dover’s Port Mortuary, where those killed in the nation’s wars are prepared for burial or cremation.

“It’s probably the most visible function this facility performs, because that’s what gets shown on television,” said Bob Mechan, an AFGE regional legislative-political organizer visiting the local’s Dover headquarters near the base. “They have no idea how they’re going to be impacted. In that situation of great grief, are you seriously going to tell families that we don’t have enough to process the hero that comes home?”

The impact on aircraft maintenance should workers like Bowman be furloughed is related, said another official. “You may not even have enough planes to get that individual,” said Al Cote, an aircraft mechanic and the local’s vice president. “Do you want to deal with that?”

Financial issues can have second- and third-order effects. “If you have financial problems, you could lose your security clearance,” Mechan said. “And if you lose your security clearance, you don’t just get a furlough. You lose your job.”

The local is asking members to speak out, urging them to write and call the state’s congressional delegation to lobby and, as Cote puts it, to “be a voice.”

For those not directly involved with the process – but who clearly could be affected – there isn’t much that can be done.

“What can you do?” said Cosmo Loffreda, owner of the popular Franco’s Pizza and Pasta Restaurant on East Lebanon Road near the base. He’s a working owner, who toils in the kitchen while keeping up a running patter with guests at the counter.

Loffreda said he’ll just keep trying to keep his customers happy and hope for the best.

But, he added somberly, “Everyone in Dover’s going to be hurt.”

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