Unless Congress agrees on a budget, several programs face significant cutbacks

“It’s devastating to me. I’ve already spent part of today in tears about this happening to our most vulnerable citizens (seniors.)”

This is how Pamela Norr, Executive Officer for Central Oregon Council on Aging (COCOA), answered the question about how the “sequestration” cuts were affecting her agency’s programs — “Meals on Wheels” and meals served at senior centers across Central Oregon.

As Norr feared, funding of the Older Americans Act (OAA) is being reduced by 15 percent. In the past, the OAA paid for a third of the cost of meals at senior centers. The centers funded the rest. The gap now has to be filled by the individual centers.

“We hoped and prayed that, two weeks ago, this (sequestration cuts) would get turned around (by Congress), but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” added Norr.

Melody Gibson, Director of Prineville’s Soroptomist Senior Center, is trying to reassure area seniors that everything will be alright — regardless of the budget cuts.

“Seniors are scared. The last time an article was published about the looming cuts it caused panic. I reassure our seniors daily that our Neat Repeat store funding keeps us pretty stable. But seniors take personal ownership of this center so they get concerned. Our challenge is that about 20 percent of our Meals on Wheels seniors don’ pay for their meals right now so we’ve got a budget gap and the cuts aren’t helping.”

“And we have a waiting list for Meals on Wheels, we’re not adding any new people to the list right now,” added Norr.

Back in August of 2011 Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which raised the debt limit, cut $917 billion in federal spending over 10 years, and established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. Called the “super committee,” it was supposed to produce legislation by Nov. 23, 2011 to further reduce spending by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The super committee was tasked with proposing legislation to reduce federal spending by a minimum amount, $1.2 trillion, or automatic cuts would be divided equally between defense and various domestic spending programs. These cuts, or “sequestration,” were designed to force the committee to present a reasonable plan to Congress.

The committee failed to even submit a proposal, meaning that when Congress failed to pass $1.2 trillion in cuts by the end of 2012, the automatic sequestration cuts kicked in on Jan. 2, 2013.

The summer of 2013 rolled around and many organizations budgeted for and began their 2013-2014 fiscal year on July 1. But they soon began to realize that Congress might not finalize a new budget deal before their summer recess.

They didn’t, and organizations began to brace for another round of federal spending cuts which would come starting with the new federal fiscal year starting on Oct. 1.

Additional federal spending sequestration cuts will affect everything from Meals on Wheels to Head Start programs. And, as of press time, Congress had not agreed on a new budget deal.

Domestic spending programs likely to receive further cuts include public housing assistance, money for schools with low-income students, food inspection, scientific research grants and environmental protection programs.

Here in Central Oregon, several programs have and will suffer from additional cuts.

“Our Housing Choice Voucher program was pretty significantly affected by these cuts already. Normally we issue 160-200 vouchers a year. This year we issued zero,” said Kenny LaPoint, Housing and Residents Service Director with Housing Works in Redmond.

Housing Works currently has 1,800 people on a waiting list for rental assistance in the tri-county area. Still serving about 1,050 people, the organization is not eliminating families — they just can’t add any more due to the cuts.

“A majority of these people are disabled or elderly. This is the first year that we’ve had any cuts to direct assistance; normally the cuts are to administrative fees, this year it’s to both. We are trying to do more with less people on staff. We had to eliminate two staff people from our Family Self Sufficiency program too, now we’re down to two people,” added LaPoint.

“And we’re also worried that, if Congress doesn't pass a Continuing Resolution by midnight on Monday Sept. 30th, HUD’s (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) office will be closed on Tuesday and there would be no one to send us our checks.”

Like every other state, Oregon is suffering the effects of sequestration on education funding.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Oregon schools were going to lose over $23 million annually in federal education funds that support K-12 schools, students with disabilities, and Head Start programs. These cuts represent a five to seven percent reduction in federal funds for these programs.

These cuts have filtered-down to the Crook County School District (CCSD).

“We have a little over a million dollars in grants. The cuts have been right at 10 percent. The real cost (of the cuts) to the district was in the form of an “interventionist,” which worked between three elementary schools and provided services for students that were both below benchmark, and those that were identified as TAG (Talented and Gifted) or TAG potential. But we have also lost money for supplies and professional development,” said Stacy Smith, CCSD's new Curriculum Director.

Liz Schuette, Finance Director with the City of Prineville, feels that the city's current budget assumptions are sound and that sequestration cuts may not affect current planning.

“I do not feel that the sequestration cuts will significantly impact our current budget here at the city. It could impact the opportunity for future grant funding in public safety, or transportation, and I suppose if the cuts significantly impact social services at the county it could increase the need of city police services. Overall, I don’t think it will affect our current revenue assumptions.”

Crook County Judge Mike McCabe is adopting a cautious attitude toward future sequestration cuts.

“For the past five years my mission has been to try to wean the county off both federal and state grants and other funding. It seems like they’re just trying to pinch us down every year. So we’re trying to be good custodians of our funds.”

“But I’ve got a call right now into both Senator Wyden and Congressman Walden to see if this thing (sequestration cuts) is going to rear its ugly head.”

Many people are concerned that sequestration cuts are hurting our most vulnerable citizens — seniors, people with disabilities, children, and the poor.

Referring to her organization’s 15 percent funding gap, Pamela Norr also views this as an opportunity for the community to embrace a vulnerable population.

“This is an opportunity for the community to wrap their arms around seniors and support them. The reality is that our programs keep seniors healthy and in their homes where they want to be. And, if seniors are safe and healthy in their homes — they stay out of the critical care facilities that wind up costing tax payers a lot of money.”

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