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Washington County businesses, parks feeling the effects of fed budget cuts

August 23, 2013|By CALEB CALHOUN | caleb.calhoun@herald-mail.com
  • In this Herald-Mail file photo, National Park Service employee Aaron Wieland finishes a new coat of paint on the Cushwa Warehouse at the Cushwa Basin of Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Williamsport. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., says sequestration cuts have had a direct impact on the national parks in the area, notably the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Herald-Mail file photo

Nearly six months after federal “sequestration” went into effect, some local businesses, nonprofit organizations and national parks are feeling the effects of the mandatory federal budget cuts, according to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

Cardin said Friday that the effects of sequestration are not always immediate, but have affected economic progress in the nation and Western Maryland.

“We’ve heard from businesses located out there dependent on federal contracts,” he said. “Some have laid off employees, some have not hired, some have moved full-time workers to part-time workers, and some have not made investments that they otherwise would make because of the loss of federal funding.”

Cardin said the cuts have had a direct impact on the national parks in the area, notably the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

He said that many national parks have had to cut back their hours, services and maintenance work, affecting areas such as the Big Slackwater on the canal near Williamsport.

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“Those types of projects are moving backward because of sequestration,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done that can’t be.”

John Noel, the canal’s chief of interpretation, education and partnerships, said that about $500,000 has been cut from the park’s roughly $10 million budget.

“We have a reduced number in attendance, because we are offering less programs, and visitor centers are open less,” he said. “People are still coming to the parks but interacting less with the interpreters.”

The visitor center in Williamsport has reduced its hours of operation from seven days a week to Wednesday through Sunday.

Maintenance work, including cutting the grass and portable toilet pumping, also has been reduced, he said.

Cardin said the cuts have caused a “significant reduction” in attendance on the C&O, noting that creates a “domino issue,” because visitors at the park also go to the local shops and restaurants, helping the local economy.

“In Washington County, where tourism is a major part of the industry, it’s really had a negative impact,” he said.

However, Tom Riford, president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that sequestration has not had a major impact on tourism in the county.

“Tourism is still very strong in Washington County,” Riford said. “We’re still on pace for higher occupancy in our hotels this year than last year.”

For the first seven months of the year, the county’s hotel occupancy rates are up 7 percent over last year, he said.

In terms of jobs, Cardin said employment numbers are lower than they otherwise would be due to the cuts from sequestration.

But at least one local agency that helps people find jobs is not struggling, at least not yet.

Peter Thomas, executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, said sequestration  has only had a minimal effect on that agency thus far.

“We were able to plan for sequestration and carry over funds from last year into this year to help keep us from going off a cliff and make it more of a downhill slide,” he said.

The consortium received about $1.8 million for this fiscal year, a 5 percent cut from last year.

But Thomas said the annual grants are for two years, with around 80 percent of the money usually spent in the first year, while the other 20 percent spent over the following year, offsetting the 5 percent cut.

As a result, the consortium has not had to reduce services or turn away people seeking job training.

Thomas said both of those options eventually could be on the table, as could having to lay off staff members, if sequestration continues or more cuts are imposed.

“We would like to think that the word compromise can be entered into the vocabulary, and that these kinds of things can be headed off,” Thomas said.

‘Bad policy’

U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., said in an email that sequestration is a “bad policy” that will have a “large impact” on Maryland.

“Coming from the private sector, I understand that deficit reduction is absolutely essential to our nation’s long-term economic competitiveness,” he said. “But sequestration is not the right approach.”

Delaney noted that Maryland’s unemployment rate rose to 7.1 percent last month, its highest level since 2011, citing that as evidence that Maryland’s private sector needs to get stronger,  but not through sequestration.

“No business, no household, would implement cuts in this way — blindly and across the board,” he said.

Delaney said the tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport was once at risk of closing due to sequestration.

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