February 17, 2013

Federal cuts have Mainers fuming

If automatic decreases kick in March 1, everyone from defense contractors to schools will feel the pain.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

"Our path forward has changed and the way we are able to do business has changed," said Geoffrey Howe, CEO and co-founder of the company with his brother Michael. "We have taken precautions, and the precautions are grim."

Howe said the company had some layoffs and has not hired anyone new in some time. Future layoffs are a possibility, he said, although the company is trying to do more work for the private sector to avoid the uncertainty over government contracting. Howe and Howe currently has 20 employees.

Howe used a nautical analogy to explain the challenge of planning their research and development amid that uncertainty.

"We can't manage our vessel and sail to safe harbor because we are getting conflicting weather reports and we don't know where we are," he said.

Top U.S. military officers didn't sugarcoat their views last week on the potential across-the-board cuts, predicting they would result in a smaller, less-mobile and more poorly trained military.

"We will immediately erode the readiness of our force," Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Specific to Maine, Ferguson said the Navy may delay procurement of a destroyer built at BIW and would likely delay nearly $300 million in repairs to the USS Miami nuclear submarine at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

In addition, Portsmouth's civilian employees would likely be furloughed for one day a week for the next 22 weeks -- the equivalent of a month's work. That will, in turn, cascade through the Navy's ship repair and maintenance schedule and prompt some frustrated workers to find more stable jobs, he said.

"It takes years to develop a nuclear welder, for example," Ferguson said. "We could lose those skills when the work goes away and they have to find employment, or if they are furloughed they may make a choice to retire or leave federal service."

O'Connor, the president of Portsmouth's union council, agreed that was a possibility.

"People will leave the shipyard, and that will leave a huge experience gap," O'Connor said.

The situation at BIW -- Maine's largest private employer -- is less clear. Rob Doolittle, spokesman for BIW owner General Dynamics, declined to comment Friday because "there was so much uncertainty about what may happen on March 1."

Dan Dowling, president of BIW's Local S6 chapter of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, said there is "some degree of concern and anxiety" among the workers but said the yard has a fair amount of work already under contract.

"But a year or two down the road is a whole 'nother story," Dowling said.

Maine schools, meanwhile, are bracing for an 8.2 percent cut in federal education funding.

READING, MATH PROGRAMS AT RISK

Perhaps the biggest impact will be on so-called "Title 1" programs that help fund remedial reading and math instruction. This funding is tied to the percentage of a district's students who get free or reduced-price lunches.

"Communities that have the least ability to absorb (cuts) will be hit the hardest," said Bill Webster, superintendent of Lewiston's public schools, where roughly 60 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Lewiston will also see a decrease in funding for its teacher training and English-as-a-second-language programs. But Webster said the reading and math programs will bear the brunt of the cuts, which he said fortunately won't likely hit until next fiscal year.

"It would have severe impacts on programs and would lead to direct layoffs or elimination of programs and transfer of staff to other positions due to retirements," Webster said.

The Obama administration has also warned that, nationwide, the cuts would result in fewer food safety inspectors and air traffic controllers, as well as longer lines at airport security checkpoints and border crossings.

Paul Bradbury, director of the Portland International Jetport, said Friday that it was still unclear how the budget cuts would affect the growing regional airport. Smaller hub airports are sometimes cut less than larger airports that can absorb the reductions.

Bradbury said there is certainly concern nationwide about how the loss of federal security screening and baggage handling agents could affect passenger wait times. But he said the information is so "nebulous" right now that no one knows.

"What we sell in Portland is all about customer service," he said. "Right now, our quality of service is very good. I would hate to have that go down."

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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