By Bill Kirk
Thousands could be put out of work or on unpaid furlough. Early education centers could see layoffs and forced reductions in student enrollments. People who rely on government assistance to pay for everything from baby formula to fuel oil could see their benefits stopped.
These are a few of the forced budget cuts that could start Friday if Congress and President Obama are unable to come to an agreement on what cuts to make to trim the federal deficit. The cuts, known as “sequestration,” call for 10 percent reductions in almost all government programs in the country as a way of paring back the $1 trillion deficit.
Locally, the cuts could mean a shutdown of the air-traffic control tower at Lawrence Municipal Airport, a cutoff of fuel assistance to hundreds of Merrimack Valley residents, layoffs of teachers and 10 percent reductions in everything from research to public safety.
“For us, it would mean we’d have to reduce our classrooms by 50 kids, and nine staff people would lose their jobs,” said Evelyn Friedman, director of Head Start on Essex Street in Lawrence. The early childhood education program, based at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, services 500 children and has about 75 employees.
Further, GLCAC administers fuel assistance for area residents. A 10 percent cut, Friedman said, translates into a $450,000 reduction in benefits to 760 customers, mostly in Lawrence and Methuen, but also in North Andover and Andover.
“That’s what I’m really worried about,” Friedman said. “People need that. If people have gas service, there is a moratorium on shut-offs until March 15. But if you have fuel delivered, they can you cut you off at any time if you don’t pay.”
She said fuel assistance typically goes to elderly and low-income families.
“It’s going to have a big, big impact,” she said. “This is a really bad time for that to be cut. Ever since the first snow this winter, people are clamoring for resources.”
Another person concerned about the cuts is Michael Miller, manager of the Lawrence Municipal Airport, located off Sutton Road in North Andover. He said if the cuts go through, it’s quite possible that the air traffic control tower at the airport could be closed.
“That’s my understanding,” Miller said. “They’re shutting it down.”
The cuts would affect the Federal Aviation Administration’s vast network of air-traffic control towers across the country, from the smaller ones, in places like North Andover and Beverly, to the largest, in places like Boston-Logan, Chicago-O’Hare and JFK-New York.
“They’re not just cutting controllers here at the local level,” he said. “They are shifting responsibility to other centers such as Logan and Kennedy, while at the same time cutting their staff as well. They are increasing their workload but cutting their staff: It’s the Perfect Storm.”
Miller said that the local tower is staffed from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. At night when a plane wants to land, the pilot presses a button that turns on the runway lights. But daytime is when most of the air traffic happens, he said. Without controllers in the tower, “it would have a negative affect on safety.”
“We have training aircraft, business and corporate planes, and pleasure aircraft,” he said. “We typically have upwards of five to six aircraft in pattern at any given time. This would now be non-tower-controlled airspace.”
It would require pilots to be extra cautious of what’s going around them because they wouldn’t have the eyes and ears on the ground to tell them where to fly safely. Further, planes flying through the airspace en route to Boston or other airports would now be monitored by Boston air traffic controllers, adding more burden to a diminished corps of workers there.
Smaller airports across the country would be in a similar predicament.
“It’s not just the safety of people coming in to Lawrence,” he said. “It’s also affecting Logan, Kennedy and Chicago. It’s a nationwide problem.”
The cuts could mean layoffs at the company that contracts with the FAA to run the towers, or it could mean furloughs for some of those workers, he noted. Either way, a reduction in staff is a reduction in safety.
“I do think it will create a dangerous situation,” he said. “It’s far more safe to have air-traffic controllers. They talk to pilots, they space it out and control it. It’s like everyone trying to get out of the parking lot after a concert – if you have a police officer standing there, it’s more orderly and safe.”
Cities and towns may also be affected.
Mayor James Fiorentini of Haverhill said the city relies on Chapter 90 money to pave most of the streets in the city. While that money comes from the state, 90 percent it is from the federal government.
“We get $1 million in Chapter 90 money,” he said. “All big projects, the 125 connector, the rail trail, all that is state transportation money … When that gets cut, we can’t pave as many streets and sidewalks.”
Also affected would be the Community Development Block Grant, or CDGB, which helps pay for inspectional service employees, including a building inspector and a portion of the health inspector’s job, as well as a large number of charities in the city.
“Sequestration calls for a 15 percent cut the first year and 15 percent cut the next year,” Fiorentini said. “I don’t know yet if it will translate into layoffs or anything like that. I’m more worried about the charities.”
Private companies may also be affected.
Reginald “Buzz” Stapczyinski, town manager of Andover, said he is worried about the impact of the cuts on some of the big military contractors in town.
“The only thing I’m concerned about is the effect on the defense budget,” he said. “If they cut 10 percent on defense, one of our largest taxpayers is Raytheon and Dynamics Research Corp. I can’t imagine they would cut current contracts, but any hits to defense is important for us to know.”
A Raytheon spokesman sent a statement to The Eagle-Tribune urging Congress and the president to act.
“Raytheon is well known for its high quality technology and innovation. These attributes, coupled with a continuous drive for efficiencies and affordability, represent what our country needs for lowering costs and achieving fiscal goals, rather than further deep, indiscriminate budget cuts,” the Raytheon statement said.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said cuts to the defense budget would be massive. She noted that sequestration calls for $500 billion in military cuts and another $500 billion in cuts to non-defense, non-discretionary, like education, energy and the environment. Social Security, Medicaid, veterans benefits and military pay are not affected.
“It’s not looking particularly hopeful,” she said. “We haven’t had a single vote on this in the new session.”
She said the cuts will lead to “a loss of jobs, not just in the Merrimack Valley, but you multiply that across the country and it’s hundreds of thousands of jobs.”