Surviving the Sequester
Washington's budget deal throws a badly needed lifeline to local social service groups.
When Congress couldn't reach a budget deal at the end of 2011, it triggered an automatic 5.1 percent across-the-board spending cut. Local governments worked hard to blunt the impact of "sequestration" on human services programs, but despaired at the additional cuts scheduled for future years. Then, just as they braced for even more painful reductions, December's surprise bipartisan budget deal offered hope.
Jennifer Hall, head of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, says the sequester was terrible: "Our cuts for the last six months were $300,000, money we would have spent on maintenance, operations, and staff." Only a last-minute appropriation from city council got the commission through the year.
"We've created an invisibility around the impact," says Mary Jo Callan, director of the joint city-county Community and Economic Development office. "Most people don't see it because we cut staff rather than services."
Callan's department has a $15 million budget this year, and about $12 million of that comes from the feds. The money mostly goes to human services and workforce development, but also to affordable housing repair, purchase, and development; targeted economic development; community infrastructure improvements; brownfield redevelopment; and historic preservation.
The housing commission's hit went beyond the cuts that city council covered, because it also administers federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which subsidize rents in private apartments. "We have about eighty vouchers less than last year," Hall says, "and there's no other money or funding to fill in."
Local governments aren't the only ones hurting, says Callan. "Also impacted are the many nonprofits that do a great job of bringing in state and federal funds, like Avalon Housing."
Avalon director Carole McCabe says the biggest impact so far has been "the lack of availability of [Section 8] vouchers and units for an initiative to house high utilizers of health services. We're working to house 100 of those folks throughout the community, and those are all frozen right now because we came to a hard stop on getting vouchers."
Sequestration also hit the public
schools. "The AAPS has seen a decrease in funding for our special education funds, specifically the IDEA funds (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which supports special education funding for K-12 students," emails schools spokeswoman Liz Margolis.
It even threatened the U-M, whose hugely successful research depends on federal money. "We have seen signs that there may be fewer contracts awarded, and the competition for them may be greater," emails David Lampe, who handles communications for the university's vice president for research.
In November, Callan was grimly anticipating still more cuts this month. Instead, she was pleasantly shocked at the deal negotiated by Republican representative Paul Ryan and Democratic senator Patty Murray.
"It appears that nearly all low-income housing programs stand to benefit in the current proposed bargain," Callan emailed after the deal was announced. For this year and next, it would restore about half of the funding lost to the sequester.
[Originally published in January, 2014.]