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Federal 'sequester' spending cuts could hit local programs hard

Many officials waiting to hear more

March 05, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Public school meals won’t be affected by the federal spending cuts known as sequestration, but several local agencies that depend on federal funding are awaiting word on how the gridlock between President Obama and Congress will affect local services they provide, officials said Monday.

“Congress and the president have to be given an F for not being able to play well together,” said Paul Pittman Jr., executive director for Head Start of Washington County.

Pittman said the national Head Start office, under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, advised the local office “to prepare a plan that would be able to address any significant cuts over the next 30 to 60 days.

“For our local Head Start program, it could mean anywhere from 25 to 45 Head Start or Early Head Start slots being cut,” Pittman said.

The local Head Start program is at capacity with more than 100 children on the Head Start waiting list and another 100 children on the Early Head Start waiting list, Pittman said. There were 384 children in Head Start and 105 in Early Head Start with sites at Elgin Station Community Center, Martin Luther King Center, Noland Community Center, and Sargent Shriver Head Start Center on Spruce Street, he said. All of those sites are in Hagerstown.

Asked how it would be determined who gets cut from the program, Pittman said he was waiting on further clarification from federal officials.

Washington County Commission on Aging officials were waiting to hear from Maryland Department of Aging officials, who were waiting to hear from federal Administration on Aging officials concerning how the sequester would affect programs such as Meals on Wheels and its seven nutrition sites, said Susan MacDonald, executive director for the local aging commission.

The local commission has nutritional meals delivered to approximately 140 homes in the county, five days a week, MacDonald said.

“So, yeah, we’re concerned. We’re anxiously awaiting,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald said she was hoping the agency won’t have to reduce its meals, but the sequester’s cuts could affect the agency’s ability to take people off the waiting list.

“Our intent is that people don’t have to wait. ... We don’t want people going hungry,” she said.

Federal funding, which the agency usually receives at this time of year, is a big part of the Meals on Wheels’ budget, MacDonald said. The program also receives funding from the state, the county, the United Way, participant donations, and other donors, she said. The program is supported federally by the Administration on Aging, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the federal surplus food program, she said.

One food program that won’t be affected by the sequester is school lunches and breakfasts, said Jeff Proulx, Food & Nutrition Services supervisor for Washington County Public Schools.

At a legislative conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Proulx said he was told Congress had exempted child nutrition programs from the sequester cuts.

Breakfast is provided at all the county public schools except Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, though Ingram students can receive breakfast at their home school before taking the bus to Ingram, Proulx said.

According to a fact sheet at the school system’s website, 47.2 percent of students in the school system are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Proulx said.

Hagerstown Regional Airport officials have received no word from the Federal Aviation Administration and there have not been any changes to airport operations, Washington County spokeswoman Sarah Sprecher wrote in an email to The Herald-Mail.

Airport Director Phil Ridenour told the County Commissioners last week that federal sequestration could result in the closing of the airport’s air traffic control tower. A decision is expected to be made by at least April 1, he said.

Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said there are no immediate changes in the agency’s services due to the sequester, but state police officials weren’t sure how the federal budget cuts would affect the state police.

Law enforcement relies on federal funding for various enforcement programs and equipment, Shipley said.

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