Sequester is more than just a fancy Washington, D.C., term for spending cuts.
For federal employee Brian Kokotajlo and his family, it’s money for groceries and gasoline that he’ll be losing each week he and other federal employees are furloughed.
“We have been on a pay freeze for the last three years, so we have had no cost-of-living increases,” the 43-year-old Springfield resident said. “Salaries are going down and everything else is going to rise. Fuel is up and groceries aren’t getting any cheaper. I’m losing about $100 a paycheck.”
Barring a last-minute deal between the White House and Congress, the first $85 billion in broad federal spending cuts will begin Friday. And while the impacts may not be felt right away, they will be substantial for some in Burlington County, which is home to one of the nation’s largest military installations on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst as well as several other federal facilities.
Among the latter is Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix, where Kokotajlo has worked for 11 years. Located on the joint base, the prison is home to about 7,400 prisoners and is staffed entirely by civilian employees.
Kokotajlo, who is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2001 at the prison, and every one of the facility’s 600 employees are expected to be furloughed for at least 14 days, or 112 hours, through September because of the impending spending cuts.
“It affects everyone, from the warden all the way down to the newest guy,” he said. “Right now, during off hours, we have one correctional officer for (every) 368 inmates. We are already short-staffed, and that ratio will increase. It’s not going to get any better if they furlough people.”
In addition to the prison personnel, the majority of the 6,000 civilian defense employees working on the base are expected to be furloughed, according to spokeswoman 2nd Lt. Alexis D. McDee. Contingency plans are in place to “mitigate mission and readiness impacts to the greatest extent possible,” McDee said, and the base will maintain all essential safety and security services.
The cuts are the result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which increased the country’s debt ceiling but mandated broad cuts in discretionary spending if a delegation of lawmakers from the House and Senate, known as the “Super Committee,” was unable to agree on a bipartisan deal to reduce the growing deficit.
The spending reductions originally were scheduled to begin Jan. 1, but Congress agreed to delay them until March as part of the January fiscal cliff deal. Since then, Congress and the White House have been unable to broker an agreement on how to avert or replace the automatic reductions.
In addition to the furloughs, the spending cuts are expected to hit Burlington County’s defense contractors and public schools.
According to federal data, defense contracts amounted to more than $2 billion in revenue for Burlington County businesses in 2011, the most recent year that information was available.
Among the largest earners was Lockheed Martin. Its sprawling plant in Moorestown is home to about 4,000 workers, making it the county’s largest private employer.
Kelli Raulerson, a spokeswoman for the company, said Lockheed was working closely with its customers to “understand how sequestration could impact all our programs.”
Raulerson declined to respond to questions about the possibility of layoffs at the Moorestown plan, but said the threat of sequester has stifled investments in “plants, equipment, people, and future research and development essential to the future health of our industry.”
Defense contractor Northrop Grumman notified the New Jersey Department of Labor of possible layoffs at its Mount Laurel office in September. However, it has not reduced its workforce, company spokesman Mark Root said.
The company was concerned about how sequestration cuts might impact “national security, the defense industrial base, and its shareholders, employees and suppliers … and all of the communities that rely on the defense industrial base,” but Root declined to speculate on any specific impact to the company.
Other smaller companies also declined to substantially comment about the threat the cuts posed to their business.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” said Denise Eckerle, CEO of EHA Technologies in Moorestown.
Besides the joint base, public schools and the Head Start early childhood centers in the county will feel the brunt of the federal spending reductions.
Figures released this week by the Obama administration forecast that New Jersey would lose about $28 million in funding this year, mostly due to cuts in Title I and special education.
The expected losses amount to a relatively small share of most districts’ overall revenue, but superintendents and business administrators cautioned that the loss of even a few thousand dollars can create budget headaches because of limits imposed by the state’s 2 percent tax cap, which restricts their ability to absorb revenue losses.
New Hanover, North Hanover, Northern Burlington County Regional and Pemberton Township will suffer the most because they also will lose impact aid they receive from the federal government as compensation for the large numbers of military dependent children they educate.
Northern Burlington County Regional Superintendent James Sarruda said his district anticipates the loss of about a quarter of its $800,000 in impact aid if sequester occurs. No staff layoffs are expected, but he said some projects, such as upgrades in security cameras, that were planned for this school year likely would be delayed.
North Hanover is anticipating the loss of about $430,000 in impact aid, or roughly 2 percent of the district’s $23 million budget, Superintendent Helen Payne said. The district froze all spending a month ago in anticipation of the cuts, but Payne did not know if the savings would be enough to spare the district from having to make more cuts.
“Everything and anything is on the table,” she said. “It’s really frustrating. The whole country is frustrated, but yeah, we’re getting hit pretty hard.”
The Burlington County Community Action Program, which runs two Head Start early childhood education centers in Pemberton Township and one each in Delanco and Lumberton, expects the sequester cuts will result in a loss of about $264,000.
Program director Silas Townsend said that the funding loss won’t have an immediate impact on Head Start classes, but that it likely would force the program to reduce its total enrollment by 29 children next fall.
“It will have a devastating impact on those families,” Townsend said. “These are families who meet 100 percent of the poverty line. They rely on Head Start, and these are the most at-risk and impoverished children.”