Unless lawmakers intervene, looming, automatic budget cuts could wound Beaufort County's economy, cutting pay for thousands of federal employees and leaving some -- including some teachers and air traffic controllers -- without a job, according to military, school and local government officials.
Congress and the White House have until Friday to avert the $85 billion across-the-board spending cuts.
The biggest blow from the spending cuts -- known as sequestration -- would be to Beaufort's three military installations and their civilian employees and contractors, according to community officials.
The Department of Defense, which has been operating under a stopgap spending plan that expires March 27, faces $46 billion in cuts.
The commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort has asked all base leaders to prioritize their missions "to ensure effective operations, regardless of any future impacts of sequestration," according to a statement Tuesday.
"The air station takes sequestration very seriously and will continue to inform our civilian employees of everything we know, when we know it," Col. Brian Murtha said in the release.
Officials from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort issued similar statements.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress last week that if the automatic spending cuts kick in Friday, he might be forced to furlough the "vast majority" of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers. The 22 days of unpaid leave would save the Pentagon as much as $5 billion, according to the Defense Department.
It's not yet clear what impact that would have at Beaufort County bases, including the 600 civilian employees at the air station.
Officials at Naval Hospital Beaufort have cut travel and delayed the purchase of non-critical equipment in preparation for sequestration, according to a statement. The 20-bed hospital and its clinics employ more than 250 civilians and more than 260 contractors.
"Should the furlough of civilian personnel become necessary, we will take every measure to mitigate the impact on patient care," commanding officer Capt. Joan Queen said in the statement.
A public affairs officer at Parris Island sent a similar statement: "Parris Island's civilian work force is critical to our role of making basically trained Marines ... (and) will not be degraded."
The recruit depot employs 430 civilians.
"The military is taking the biggest hit out of everybody right now," retired Marine Col. John Payne, chairman of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee, said. "Furloughs would cut disposable income in Beaufort County quite a bit, which means businesses will take a hit and force people to dip into any existing savings."
Cuts will also mean the cancellation of all events by the Navy's Blue Angels, including their scheduled appearance at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Air Show April 27-28, according to Blue Angels public affairs officer Lt. Katie Kelly.
"If sequestration takes effect on Friday, all of the Blue Angels' third- and fourth-quarter demonstrations will be canceled from April 1 to Sept. 3," Kelly said. "We are hoping that doesn't happen."
For the Beaufort County School District, cuts would mean a loss of nearly $530,000 for special education, low-income student aid, migrant education, professional development and class-size reduction. That amounts to the same as cutting eight teachers; however, layoffs are unlikely, district operations chief Phyllis White said.
And although federal funding would go away, federal mandates do not, White said.
"With special education, we don't have a choice in the matter," she said. "We would have to pick up funding somewhere else to meet requirements."
The district would have to absorb the cuts at a time when it is expecting less revenue from a county tax base forecast to shrink when property values are reassessed this fall.
That probably would mean less professional development for teachers and cuts to after-school programs, White said.
Effects from the sequestration would not be felt until the next federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, district officials said.
Most of the federal aid that would be cut -- about $280,000 -- goes directly to the district's Title I schools, which have a high percentage of disadvantaged students. The federal money is used to help improve their academic achievement. About $150,000 goes toward special-education programs.
The rest goes toward educator and vocational training, improving English proficiency among non-native speakers, providing basic education for children of migrant workers and reducing class sizes for schools with a high population of at-risk students.
"Most of the cuts would affect those already being affected the most," said Terry G. Bennett, district director of grants management.
Defense Department schools, such as those at Laurel Bay, would be hit harder because they depend on federal funding more than most schools, according to local military and education officials.
Defense Department spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde said in an email that the department is reviewing all areas of its budget for potential savings. The goal, she said, is to minimize the impact of sequestration and Defense Department furloughs. The department will ensure students will have a full school year of academic credit, and schools will maintain accreditation standards.
Beaufort County spokeswoman Joy Nelson said the Hilton Head Island Airport could close if spending cuts force layoffs of air-traffic control and security personnel at small airports.
"We don't know what they're going to cut," Nelson said. "But should sequestration cut (Federal Aviation Administration) funding, it could ultimately mean the elimination of those federal airport employees."
Cuts in FAA spending could also jeopardize grants for airport safety improvements, Nelson said.
If the air traffic control tower is shut down, the Hilton Head airport could rely on the tower at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport to direct inbound and outbound aircraft, but it wouldn't have anyone on site to monitor takeoffs and landings, Nelson said.
A representative with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said he could not comment about impacts of spending cuts to the Savannah and Pinckney Island national wildlife refuges.
Attempts Tuesday to reach a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1951 were unsuccessful.
- Leon Panetta: Furlough may be necessary for Department of Defense employees: Feb. 20, 2013
- Local Marines aboard stalled aircraft carrier: Feb. 11, 2013
- Beaufort group prepping for sequestration fight: Jan. 12, 2013