Thousands of local federal employees brace for shrunken summer paychecks as budget sequester kicks in Furlough Fridays

Michelle and Gregory Tompkins prepare a meal Thursday at their home. Gregory, who works for Homeland Security, will lose about two weeks’ pay to furloughs. “We eat out much less than before,” Michelle said. “It’s just being more realistic about finances.”

Wade Spees

Nonprofit groups in the Charleston area are scrambling to compensate for federal “sequester” budget cuts that will reduce funds to help sexual assault and domestic violence victims, feed poor senior citizens, and provide other services.

“I’ve been with the organization for 24 years, and I’ve never had to tell my employees they might not have a job because we might not get grants,” said Elmire Raven, executive director of My Sister’s House in North Charleston.

But now, due to the spending cuts that kicked in when Congress couldn’t agree on a budget, Raven said the nonprofit group may have to lay off six of its 20 employees. And My Sister’s House is not alone.

“We’re talking about domestic violence and sexual assault programs across the state,” she said.

At Charleston Area Senior Citizens, which provides services across the region from the Cooper River to the Edisto, federal budget cuts will hit the nonprofit’s budget in July. Executive Director Sandra Clair said that will mean cutting programs that provide services to poor home-bound seniors, and to at-risk youth, and nutrition programs for the elderly.

“We’ll serve less meals,” Clair said. “I don’t think most people are aware of the terrible situation that many seniors are in.”

The sequester budget cuts eliminated 4 percent of CASC’s federal support, or about $20,000.

“It’s difficult to convince someone that there isn’t fat in the budget, but after years of cost-cutting there isn’t any fat left,” Clair said. “The biggest problem is, I think we’re just seeing the start of this.”

Under the sequester, if Congress doesn’t reach a plan for the federal budget, automatic spending cuts continue, and grow, each year.

“Unfortunately, for most people it will be an invisible problem, but we deal with people who are hungry today,” Clair said.

As nonprofit groups get ready to ask donors and local governments for more support, local governments are also seeing their federal grant funds reduced, raising pressure on local taxpayers.

“There has been an impact,” said North Charleston’s grants administrator, Shannon Praete. “They aren’t saying they’re taking money from us, but they are changing the amounts.”

There’s less federal funding for local law enforcement, for example, which uses federal grant money to support security efforts related to the Port of Charleston, Praete said.

In Charleston, Chief Financial Officer Stephen Bedard said the city has seen a small impact on grant programs so far, but there could also be indirect impacts as budget cuts reduce tax revenue related to local spending and tourism.

“Right now everybody is in a wait-and-see mode,” he said.

At My Sister’s House, Raven said the waiting is one of the worst parts.

“There has to be a plan,” she said. “We can’t just sit and wait, hoping it comes through.”

States have been unable to apply for funds from the federal Victims of Crime Act for the budget year that starts July 1, and the U.S. Department of Justice has not said when that might change.

“Our hope is that the situation is resolved very quickly so we can continue the outstanding work being done by these victims services providers throughout our state,” said Sherri Iacobelli, communications director for the S.C. Department of Public Safety. “These programs provide necessary and vital assistance ranging from shelter housing to direct medical assistance for victims of crime and their families.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.