Head Start, other local programs face shortfall

Posted: March 6, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Some preschool-aged children may soon have more time on their hands in the afternoon to watch politicians bicker on C-SPAN.

Due to the failure of Congress and the White House to reach a budget agreement, a series of automatic spending cuts were set in motion Friday — including a 5 percent decrease in funding for the Head Start program for the remainder of fiscal year 2013.

In Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties, Apple County Head Start serves 162 children, ages 3 to 5 — the large majority of whom are from families living below the federal poverty line ($23,550 for a household of four).

The local organization has yet to decide where to cut, but executive director Thea Thomas said Tuesday that “our goal is not to cut anything with children or services.”

Nationwide, it’s estimated that 70,000 children will lose access to the program because of the cuts, according to an email sent Tuesday by Head Start national director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes to program chapters across the country.

Thomas said it’s a shame the program is facing cutbacks.

“Kids who were part of Head Start do better in school, and it readies parents for navigating the school system,” she said.

About $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, were set in motion March 1 as the result of a 2011 standoff over raising the country’s debt ceiling. Republicans declined to do so without also trimming the federal budget.

The White House, fearing that not raising the debt ceiling would trigger an international financial crisis, suggested a solution of automatic cuts and tax increases that would be triggered Jan. 2 if an alternative agreement wasn’t reached. The idea was that the threat of massive budget cuts and tax increases would create an incentive for Democrats and Republicans to reach a deal, but it didn’t work out that way, and the cuts are now moving forward.

Some have dubbed the winter storm passing through the Winchester area today the “snowquester” — a name that could be applied more frequently to future storms, as the sequester could harm future storm forecasts.

The budget reductions are slashing funding for two government satellite programs already considered at risk by federal auditors, and they could lengthen a coverage gap already expected to leave forecasters with a multi-year satellite blind spot by the end of 2016.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, took up the issue in Congress Tuesday, asking if the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration need greater flexibility in how they spend their funds, known in government jargon as reprogramming.

Wolf said in a Tuesday letter to the acting secretary of the Department of Commerce that his appropriations subcommittee would consider expedited reprogramming “in order to ensure that sequestration does not negatively impact the National Weather Service’s ability to forecast the weather.”

The Laurel Center — the local shelter for victims of domestic abuse — could see its construction of a new facility on Cameron Street set back by the sequester.

John Morrison, the former owner of Piccadilly Printing who does fundraising for the shelter, said Frederick County has applied for a $700,000 community development block grant (CDBG) to help finish the center’s construction.

But the sequester scaled back funds for the already hyper-competitive CDBGs by 5 percent — which will likely make it more difficult for the shelter to obtain the funds.

“It’s certainly something we have to worry about,” Morrison said Tuesday.

Without the federal funds, he said, the money would likely have to be raised through private donations.

Other Winchester area organizations dependent on federal government funding are still in wait-and-see mode, while schools won’t begin to feel the pinch until fiscal year 2014 — which begins July 1.

Lisa Frye, Frederick County Public School division director of finance, said the division is expecting to lose $230,000 in FY2014 for specific programs, including special education and reading and math improvement.

Frye said the reduction in funds should be manageable in 2014, but that if they aren’t restored or continue to be cut in coming years — the sequester calls for $1.2 trillion in federal budget reduction over 10 years — there will be more pressure on state and local money to maintain current services.

The financial picture for the Virginia Employment Commission — which helps the unemployed with retraining and finding jobs — remains unclear.

“At this point we still don’t know,” said Donna Holloway, manager of the Winchester VEC office. “The Department of Labor has yet to notify us.”

According to predictions released by the White House Feb. 24, Virginia stands to lose $348,000 in federal funding in job search assistance, which could mean 18,390 fewer individuals receiving help.

The Lord Fairfax Health District provides a range of community health services — such as immunizations, tuberculosis screening, pregnancy and HIV testing and blood pressure evaluations — as well as restaurant and cafeteria inspections in Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah and Page counties.

According to White House officials, those services could face cuts under the federal budget cuts — although the district’s health director, Dr. Charles Devine, said Tuesday that he has not received information from the Virginia Department of Health on how potential cuts will be managed.

— Contact Conor Gallagher at cgallagher@winchesterstar.com