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Federally backed programs receive temporary reprieve from sequestration

(Jan. 4, 2013) Despite narrow avoidance of the dreaded federal “Fiscal Cliff” earlier this week, a number of high-dollar programs, including those that benefit the resort area, are not guaranteed to be out of the woods yet.

Although both houses of Congress have approved a deal that will raise taxes on those earning more than $400,000 annually, an examination of spending cuts that would’ve been enacted automatically if a deal was not reached has been delayed for another two months.

This means that a number of federally backed programs could still see the cuts that were projected to receive if sequestration – an automatic sector-by-sector budget scale-back triggered by deficit inflation – were to have set in.

But lawmakers themselves are not yet clear on what programs would be dropped if certain parts of the federal government were forced to cut back.

“The answer is that we really don’t know yet,” said Chris Meekins, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st), in regards to what specifically would receive the ax if the cuts were to be enacted.

“If those cuts are made, it would be up to the administration [the executive branch of the federal government] to determine what actually goes.”

For Ocean City, the biggest concern may be the resort’s beach replenishment. Roughly once every four years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges the coastline to replace beach sand washed out to sea, maintaining a barrier of both space and mass between the city and the ocean. As recently as October’s Hurricane Sandy, the beach design was credited with saving much of the town’s ocean-facing property from storm damage.

The program is heavily subsidized by the federal government via the corps, and paid for from a fund contributed to by the city, Worcester County and the State of Maryland. Meekins did not know, however, if the corps’ domestic efforts were funded out of the federal defense budget, which stands to lose considerable money under the original sequestration guidelines.

Even more pressing, however, may be the potential cuts of federal aid to Worcester County’s schools, which receive more than $9 million in federal grants.

According to a report from the National Education Association, the hardest hit programs nationwide will be the Title I grant system, which assists schools serving low-income students, and the grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which support special education programs. These will be cut by $1.2 billion and $900 million, respectively, under sequestration.

Worcester receives more than $1.5 million from each of these, according to county schools’ Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert. Tolbert said he was told to expect an average of an 8.2 percent cut to these programs and was planning for up to $300,000 in losses for the 2013-2014 school year.

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