GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 2, 2013

Fed spending cuts start to hit home

Pathways, city firms await word on contracts

By Tom Dalton
Staff Writer

---- — A troubling message arrived at Beverly Airport this week.

With automatic federal spending cuts beginning to take effect from the government’s sequestration breakdown, the airport was told its air-traffic control tower will close as of April 1.

If those cuts take effect, Beverly Airport will stay open, but will operate without controllers, something it has done in the past.

But other services agencies and businesses across the North Shore, including on Cape Ann, are also bracing for the first blows of sequestration — the term given to the $85 billion scheduled to be cut from the proposed federal budget if Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., can’t work out a deal.

For many agencies that depend heavily on federal funds, the biggest problem right now is the uncertainty.

“Frankly, we have had zero guidance on the impact,” said Susan Todd, president of the Gloucester-based Pathways for Children, the early-childhood education agency that also now cordinates a federally-funded Head Start program serving more than 230 preschoolers.

“I can’t tell my staff or families anything,” she said, “because we haven’t been informed,” she said.

“We’ve heard nothing — no one’s hearing anything,” said Steve Kaity, vice president/operations of The Strong Group, a Gloucester company that is based ln Maplewood Avenue and holds a number of small Defense contracts that could be threatened by sequestration cuts.

Gorton’s of Gloucester and Bomco Industries also hold significant contracts for supplying the Department of Defense, which is among the federal departments most targeted by the spending cuts. And in Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard is feeling the pinch.

Coast Guard rescue aircraft will fly fewer hours and cutters will patrol the seas for fewer hours, says Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp. But while emergencies will remaion a priority, interdictions of illegal immigrants, drugs and illegal fishing could decline, Papp said.

Kaity said he’s noticed changes in government orders over the last two months.

“What we have seen,” Kaity said, “are smaller (shorter-term) orders done by credit cards, as opposd to large orders where we would traditionally bill the government and then wait for wire (fund) transfer.”

Kaity, whose company also regularly bids on jobs for supplying law enforcement bades and other forms of identification, said a number of municipalities are treading carefully, wary that their local aid funding will be impacted as federal spending cuts trickle down through states to the local level.

The National Park Service is also preparing for significant cutbacks. At the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, there is a hiring freeze. They also expect to eliminate eight of the 16 to 20 seasonal rangers and maintenance staff usually hired for six-month positions during the busy tourism season.

“It’s really plugging up all the works,” said Jonathan Parker, a public information officer at the Salem site.

“The bulk of the front-line employees during the peak visitor season are, for the most part, seasonal employees, and that’s across the National Park Service. They are the backbone of our front-line operations during peak season ... leading tours, taking out the trash and patrolling the parks.”

Representatives from Beverly Airport have contacted federal officials to complain about the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to close air traffic control towers at small commuter airports.

“It’s going to lessen safety and efficiency, of course, and probably will create more noise problems,” said Bob Mezzetti, the airport manager.

Beverly Airport, which handled 59,000 takeoffs and landings last year, hosts a range of aircraft from single-engine planes to larger corporate jets.

Although the possible loss of air-traffic controllers sounds dire, Mezzetti said, “It’s not unusual to have (small) airports with no control towers.”

When controllers aren’t present, pilots communicate with one another on a common radio frequency to coordinate landings and takeoffs, he said.

Although the controllers are hired by a private agency and aren’t airport employees, Mezzetti estimated that around a half-dozen work at Beverly. For the most part, they work during daylight hours.

Several decades ago, before Beverly Airport had a control tower, it had several flight schools and more than 200,000 takeoffs and landings a year, according to Mezzetti.

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@gloucestertimes.com.