Impact of federal cuts unclear

FAIRMONT – Local government entities are considering what services they might trim if federal lawmakers don’t stave off $86 billion in budget cuts by a Friday deadline.

“It’s going to impact us not so much this school year, but next school year,” said Joe Brown, superintendent of Fairmont Area Schools.

Although Brown is not sure of the dollar amount the district could lose, he is hearing that funding cuts will be about 8 percent. He said the district gets 4 percent of its funding from the federal government.

“Eight percent of that is relatively small,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll have much impact.”

The Title I program will face the brunt of it, Brown calculates.

“We’re already looking at staffing next year and reducing areas in Title programs,” he said.

Brown will know more after the Friday deadline, and the district will have more information after March 15, the last day teachers can announce retirements and still claim benefits. Brown said Monday that he knows of only one employee who plans to retire.

Another thing that will impact school district budgeting is enrollment.

“We’re down about 30 students from September,” Brown noted.

He won’t know next school year’s enrollment until the fall, of course, but the district can’t wait that long to consider its options. The school board will meet for an open fiscal discussion 7 p.m. March 26 in the Budd Room at Fairmont Elementary.

“You gotta be flexible in this position,” Brown said. “We hope we continue to provide good-quality education for kids.”

Education isn’t the only area that could be affected by federal budget cuts. Blake Chaffee, director of the communications, analysis and research division at Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, knows it.

The department covers programs such as WorkForce Center, services for the blind, vocational rehabilitation and unemployment services.

“The thing to know is obviously, it’s gonna have a large, sizeable impact,” Chaffee said.

“We’re up against a high level of uncertainty,” he said, because no one knows which funds will be reduced. But the department has been assessing possibilities for the last couple of months and planning for alternatives.

Assessments also are ongoing at Martin Soil and Water Conservation District, said technician Rich Perrine.

If Soil and Water loses funding, some programs such as planting trees for wind breaks could be reduced or stopped. Other programs, such as sealing abandoned wells, would have to continue because they are mandated and must be done for safety reasons, but the funding would have to be made up from somewhere.

“It cuts our abilities to spend on other projects,” said Perrine, listing erosion and water-quality programs.

“State dollars don’t go far; we use mostly federal funding,” he added.

Like everyone else, Perrine has no idea how far-reaching the impact of the cuts will be, but Soil and Water is already unable to implement new projects because “we don’t know where the funding is coming from,” he said.

One area in which he expects the cuts to have an impact is the farm program, which expired at the end of 2012.

“We’re functioning on the continuing resolution of the farm bill,” he said. “It’s all up in the air right now.”