As politicians scurry to resolve the congressional cliffhanger known as sequestration, communities such as Augusta are bracing for a storm of uncertain proportions.
“The cuts to the military alone would be tremendously damaging to the local economy,” Mayor Deke Copenhaver said. “It would be the perfect storm of bad economic news.”
The massive, across-the-board spending cuts would be triggered automatically on Jan. 2 – unless Congress can agree on a budget.
Although the federal cuts would affect every city, military communities such as Augusta could face more severe impacts because of Fort Gordon’s status as the area’s dominant employer.
“Fort Gordon employs 24,000 to 25,000 people,” said Thom Tuckey, the executive director of the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon. “About 16,000 are military and the rest are civilians and contractors.”
Defense cuts, he said, are not the sort of thing that should be made arbitrarily – and without advance notice to the forces affected.
Fort Gordon houses critical national defense programs, such as the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance facility that employs about 4,000 workers who collect and distribute intelligence data.
The post also houses major communications and computer schools and the largest Microsoft certified training center in the world, he said, noting that arbitrary cuts could compromise their effectiveness.
“Fort Gordon is the Army’s school for cyber warfare,” Tuckey said. “And right now the world of cyber warfare is the world of the future: The winner will be whoever can get into the other’s data the deepest.”
Those important programs would be difficult to cut, he said, but if the budget ax falls, the most likely victims could include civilian workers, contractors and infrastructure projects.
“I don’t have the crystal ball to say how this will shake out,” he said. “But if they have to cut that fast, and that soon, those are the areas that would most likely be affected.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said his offices are fielding questions daily about the looming sequestration deadline, but there is still uncertainty as to what will happen.
Rather than across-the-board sequestration that is particularly punitive to the military, a better solution is to collaborate on appropriately prepared cuts to reduce spending, he said.
“It’s impossible to assign cuts in an arbitrary, across-the-board fashion,” Isakson said. “If a program is valuable, you don’t cut it out, you go to programs that are not as valuable and find your cuts.”
Much of the public’s concern involves the effect of those potential cuts throughout military communities.
“Lots of business people in Augusta and Columbia County are concerned about the prospect of cutting back on outside contracting,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of economic activity that breeds off the base.”
Examples could include everything from maintenance workers and material suppliers to landscapers, he said.
Commanders of military installations have also shared their frustrations with Isakson and other lawmakers.
“They have been told by the Pentagon to prepare for cuts if sequestration takes place, but they haven’t been told what will be cut,” Isakson said. “So for now, there is a great fear of the unknown.”
In addition to a major military base, Augusta also has Veterans Administration medical facilities that would also be at risk if sequestration slashes budgets.
“The last thing we want to do is cut veterans benefits when we have these thousands of people coming home from serving their country,” Isakson said.
The automatic cuts, mandated through the federal Budget Control Act passed as a compromise, calls for cutting $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, of which $492 billion will come from the Pentagon – starting in 2013 with a $56.7 billion cut to the Department of Defense budget.
As far as what will happen after Jan. 2, no one can say for sure.
“If you listen to the politicians and the president, they say we are going to sort it out before the first if the year, but no one has a plan acceptable to everyone,” Tuckey said. “But I do know there are lots of behind the scenes discussions under way.”