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Defense employees could get notices in mid-March

Up to 13,000 Wright-Patterson Air Force Base civilian employees could be notified of job furloughs of up to 22 days by mid-March, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., that many of the 800,000 civilian employees in the military will face unpaid furloughs unless the White House and Congress agree on a plan to avoid automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect next month.

The Pentagon projects that the automatic spending cuts this year would have a negative impact on Ohio’s economy of $165 million.

Robert Hale, the Pentagon chief financial officer, said in a press conference Wednesday the furloughs could start in late April for most Department of Defense civilian employees.

“We feel we don’t have any choice but to impose furloughs even though we would much prefer not to do it,’’ said Hale, describing the possible furloughs as “one of the most distasteful tasks I have faced in my four years in this job.’’

By the middle of March, Hale said, the Pentagon will send a letter to each civilian employee who faces a possible furlough. After 30 days, the worker would have one week to appeal the decision before the furlough goes into effect. Civilians based in combat zones will not be subject to furloughs, he said.

In a letter to Boehner, Panetta wrote that “while furloughs would be disruptive and damaging to our ability to carry out the defense mission, there are no viable alternatives for’’ the Pentagon if the $46 billion in automatic spending cuts to its budget this year takes place.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base could furlough up to 13,000 civilian employees for 22 days beginning in April, Col. Cassie B. Barlow, commander of the 88th Air Base Wing, has said previously.

Laura McGowan, a Wright-Patterson spokeswoman, said Wednesday the base did not have a specific date on when furlough notices would be sent.

The base had not determined whether the days would be consecutive or one day a week through the end of the fiscal year, Barlow has said. The unpaid time off work is expected to be equivalent to a 20 percent pay cut between April and September.

Barlow has said “mission critical” employees, such as civilian police officers, firefighters and medical professionals, were expected to be exempted. Wright-Patterson is the state’s largest single site employer with more than 29,000 military and civilian personnel.

Workers already cutting back

An Air Force Research Laboratory civilian employee who did not want to be named Wednesday said many employees are “resigned” to the potential for furloughs after months of uncertainty and political debate in Washington.

“There’s really nothing we can do to control the issue one way of the other,” the employee said. “We’re not allowed to lobby our congressmen. We’ve been pretty certain that it was going to happen for quite some time.

“Are we happy about losing pay? No. Nobody is,” the AFRL employee added. “It’s going to be a financial hardship for everybody.”

The Wright-Patterson worker had set money aside for a housing addition, but that will be redirected to daily expenses. “I have things I have been saving for that I will no longer be able to afford,” the employee said.

Charles R. Morton, executive director of the Dayton Building and Construction Trades Council, was concerned less spending will mean fewer jobs for the 6,500 workers he represents in 12 different unions.

“That’s definitely going to decrease the number of jobs we can bid on at the base,” he said Wednesday. “Work (has) been slow around here anyway and … if they don’t follow through on these projects that could hurt us.”

Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal government programs, said more advocacy groups have spoken against sequestration with a March 1 deadline to avert sequestration looming.

“We are seeing more concern and that may translate into pressure to avert sequestration before it happens or takes effect,” he said.

Even so, he said, talk in Washington this week is “very gloomy. That can change overnight if members of Congress feel they’re constituents back home care.

“There are creative legislative ways to deal with situations like this,” he said. “Sometimes out of adversity springs the most creative and effective solutions. We may yet see this happen.”

March 1 deadline looms for Obama, Congress

The furloughs are estimated to save the Pentagon about $5 billion through September, Hale said.

The federal government faces $85 billion in automatic spending reductions this year, the first of $1.2 trillion in sequestration-mandated cuts over a decade.

The cuts are evenly divided between defense and domestic programs, but do not impact the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which budget analysts say are the main cause of the federal deficit. Because entitlements are exempted, the spending cuts fall disproportionately on defense, housing, education, and criminal justice.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic spending reductions during the next decade were originally proposed by President Barack Obama in 2011 as part of a larger package to reduce the federal debt.

Congress approved the package, which also created a super committee of lawmakers from the House and Senate to produce a plan to reduce the deficit. When the committee failed to agree to a plan, it triggered the automatic spending cuts.

But now as the full impact of the spending cuts becomes clear, Obama and many lawmakers who originally supported it are expressing misgivings. Instead, Obama has urged the Senate and House to scrap the sequester and adopt a new plan that would blend tax increases with spending cuts.

House Republicans have approved a bill that would spread out the spending reductions over most of the federal budget, including some cuts in entitlements. The Senate has not passed a bill, but Senate Democrats have offered a plan that would include tax increases and spending cuts.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said he “voted against this mess in 2011 because I believed we’d be right here now,” he said. “We’re on the eve of what could be furloughs to 800,000, including 13,000 in our own community.”

Lauren Kulik, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Brown supports the Senate Democratic plan which includes a mix of spending cuts and increased revenue that would allow our first responders and teachers to keep their jobs; would not result in slashes to Medicare; and will maintain the strength of our national defense and military preparedness.”

Brown, however, voted for the package in 2011 that included the sequester. Meghan Dubyak, communications director for Brown, said that the Ohio Democrat “voted to use the threat of sequester to spur bipartisan action on deficit reduction. Since the super committee failed to act, he would like to avert the sequester … through a mix of targeted spending cuts and revenue increases.’’

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a member of the super committee, said in Dayton Wednesday that even though he has “always said that sequestration was a bad idea,’’ he believes federal spending needs to be reduced.

Instead, Portman said “there is an opportunity to come up with both more flexibility in terms of how the cuts are put in play. In other words, prioritizing programs that work. At Wright-Patt for instance, we’ve got some really important work being done on research that affects our entire military at the Air Force’s research lab. We don’t want to stop that research or slow it down.’’

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday he blamed congressional Republicans for the stalemate, telling reporters that “we need to return to a process that has Congress, the House and the Senate, working on budget proposals, the president submitting his budget, and compromise emerging from that process. And compromise in this case means deficit reduction through entitlement reforms, spending cuts, and tax reform that produces more revenues.’’

Staff writers Tom Beyerlein and Kelli Wynn contributed to this story.

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