Fayetteville area agencies, workers brace for furloughs caused by budget cuts

"That's not going to change the price," said Hines, president and CEO of United Way of Cumberland County. "And it's going to be hard."

United Way funds more than 100 health and human service programs in Cumberland County and on post. Hines met this week with Department of Defense civilian leaders and the Fayetteville Regional Chamber of Commerce to hash out what can be done to mitigate the effects the deep federal budget cuts - known as sequestration - will have on those directly affected and the wider local economy.

About 8,500 of the 14,000 civilian employees on post are expected to lose 20 percent of their pay over the next six months. They work at clinics, schools, training sites and elsewhere. But the ripples could roll far beyond Fort Bragg. Funding for schools and hospitals will be cut. Other federal employees - from food inspectors to air traffic controllers - also face furloughs.

"We're trying to figure out what some of the needs will be," Hines said. "We can guess, but we want to be more concrete."

That process is just beginning, but Hines said financial counseling and mental health care are two areas where he expects to see greater demand.

"We feel like financial counseling will be huge," he said.

The outcome of the sequester will be felt starting April 1, when many of the budget cuts that went into effect March 1 take practical effect. Furloughs of federal employees are expected to begin April 22.

That's because the law requires the furloughs to be negotiated with union leaders followed by a 30-day notice. While powerless to prevent the mandated unpaid days off - 22 between now and Sept. 30 - unions can fight for employee flexibility on when the time is taken.

"It gives the employees some ability to predict those pay periods in which they're going to go without money," said Jonathan Steele, president of Local 1770 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "It gives them a little bit of flexibility in terms of balancing their own checkbooks and knowing when it's better, during the six-month period, to go without pay."

Steele said the union is forging a partnership of its own with the Cumberland Community Action Program, which provides financial guidance through its Consumer Credit Counseling Service. Steele said the union also is seeking help for workers from Second Harvest Food Bank.

"We want to make sure that school-age kids are still getting the nutrition and all those things they need to have," he said.

Many of the affected employees are veterans. Some have already sought help from the Cumberland County Veterans Services office.

"We're getting some calls, people asking if there is emergency money from VA to assist them over this 22-week hump," said Sharon Sanders, who runs the office. "Which, of course, there is not any."

Some have asked about getting additional disability payments, Sanders said, but that process takes at least a year. The office plans to funnel people toward nonprofit agencies and the county's 211 system, which helps connect people with assistance programs.

"The problem is a lot of those agencies are hurting also," she said. "It's going to be a domino effect. It really is."

How many dominoes will fall is hard to say. Petur Jonsson, professor of economics at Fayetteville State University, warned against buying into any concrete estimates on the local economic impact.

"Nobody really knows, and everybody's guessing," he said. "There is a potential threat here, there's no question about that."

Even a review of congressional documents from when the sequester was passed in 2011 did not make it any clearer.

"The more I read," Jonsson said, "the more confused I felt."

What lies beyond this federal budget year, which ends Sept. 30, is also uncertain. Federal lawmakers are yet to make a deal to keep the government operating beyond March 27, though on Wednesday the U.S. House passed a bill to avoid a shutdown. That bill now goes to the Senate.

"We're just trying," Hines said, "to get from April 23 to Sept. 30."

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