Agencies in Maryland dodge furloughs — for now

Other signs of sequestration's impact begin to hit area

  • Fort McHenry will decrease its hours this summer because the federal budget cuts brought on by the sequester.
Fort McHenry will decrease its hours this summer because the… (Baltimore Sun )
March 30, 2013|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — A month after across-the-board federal spending cuts began, there are signs that one of the most troubling potential consequences for Maryland — the furloughing of federal employees — might not be as widespread as initially feared.

But the state has not gone unscathed by the $85 billion in cuts known as sequestration, and some of the first tangible changes in the Baltimore area are beginning to emerge as federal services are trimmed.

Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the Hampton National Historic Site near Towson plan to cut hours this summer, limiting visits by tourists. And the head of the city's housing agency said he is shutting the Section 8 housing program to several dozen new applicants a month.

Still, as service cuts begin, many of the largest federal agencies in Maryland — which are responsible for tens of thousands of jobs — said they hope to avoid furloughs for the rest of the fiscal year. Some economists now believe private-sector job growth may blunt the impact of federal payroll cuts in a state that is heavily reliant on government spending and is home to more than 300,000 federal workers.

"Most residents ... in this region aren't going to notice the hurt quite as much as they thought they were going to when they were thinking about it in January," said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

"We may duck the bullet this time around," he added. "But we're not done yet."

Many federal agencies based in Maryland, including the Social Security Administration and the National Institutes of Health, did not issue furlough notices to employees in March as some had expected. And the Department of Defense said last week that it intends to limit unpaid leave that could affect 45,000 civilian workers in the state.

Some of the largest agencies, including Social Security and the Food and Drug Administration, hopeful they can meet the spending reduction targets through the end of September without relying on furloughs at all.

Sequestration is the result of a failure by Congress and the White House to strike a deal to reduce the nation's more than $1 trillion annual budget deficits. In pressing for an agreement, President Barack Obama and other Democrats warned that the across-the-board reductions would slow the economy, jeopardize military readiness and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Republicans insisted that the projected impact was exaggerated and that cuts were needed to rein in federal spending.

The cuts that began March 1 are expected to fall hardest on Maryland and Virginia because of their geographic and economic ties to the nation's capital. Civilian and military federal workers in Maryland earn more than $25 billion in yearly wages, according to census estimates — representing about 10 percent of the state's economy.

To be sure, noticeable cuts to federal services have been made — or will be soon.

Fort McHenry, for example, is usually open 12 hours a day in the summer, and the website still shows hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the peak tourism season. But Tina Orcutt, superintendent of the federal park site, said the grounds will likely be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. this summer. She is trimming travel expenses for staff members, but expects the fort to continue scheduled programming and maintenance.

The Hampton National Historic site, which Orcutt supervises, also will trim summer hours. The grounds at Hampton — a sprawling estate dating to the early 1800s — will remain open seven days a week, but tours of the Georgian mansion and outbuildings will be offered Friday through Sunday instead of the usual daily. Orcutt said her staff will try to make exceptions for special events.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, meanwhile, has shut the Section 8 voucher program to new applicants — a move that will close off housing subsidies to about 50 additional Baltimore families a month and add to a lengthy waiting list.

The agency, which is expected to take a roughly $25 million hit in federal funding this year, is struggling to balance aid with emergency repairs it must make to its buildings, said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

"There's a trade-off there," he said. "To do these basic, emergency capital improvements so that these buildings will continue to be occupiable, further money will come out of Section 8."

Furlough notices sent to workers at the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and other agencies will impact Maryland. But for now, some of the largest agencies based in the state appear to have averted them.

Though it isn't making promises, Woodlawn-based Social Security, which employs nearly 12,000 people in Maryland, hopes it can continue to avert furloughs for the rest of the fiscal year, spokesman Mark Hinkle said.

The agency is cutting positions through attrition — at least 100 in March. It has also reduced overtime by about 64 percent.

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