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For Tennesseans, the sequester suddenly gets real

8:59 AM, Apr 25, 2013   |    comments
Metro Health Department nurse Elizabeth Cook, right, visits Ktora Smith's Madison home to weigh and check on the progress of 4-month-old Tyrese Smith./The Tennessean
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By Michael Cass, The Tennessean

After Ktora Smith gave birth to her first child four years ago, adjusting to motherhood was a lonely road. Smith didn't have many people to turn to.

The second time has been another story. Since her son Tyrese was born on Dec. 5, Smith has been able to ask Elizabeth Cook questions on a regular basis. Cook, a nurse with the Metro Health Department, visits Smith and nine other new mothers in the city's Early Head Start program once a week.

"By having Elizabeth here, I think this baby is completely different," Smith, 27, said as Cook paid a visit to her Madison apartment to check little Tyrese's progress and measure his weight, length and head size.

"By her telling me stuff and keeping me informed, I learned a whole bunch of things. And I think that was very important for me."

But the routine Smith and Cook have established is in jeopardy.

And this is how the abstract, oddly named concept known as "sequestration," which on the surface seems like just another Washington political squabble, is playing out in real terms - around the margins. It means, among other things, less help with her baby for Smith, less instruction for children with disabilities all over Tennessee, less income for the military's civilian employees, less money to help poor students go to college and less free time for some travelers.

Under the automatic $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequestration, the Metro Action Commission, which oversees the Early Head Start program, is looking at a 35 percent reduction in funding for its contract with the health department. While official discussions continue, commission spokeswoman Lisa McCrady said the change will almost certainly mean that Cook, who also sees six pregnant women on a regular basis, will have to make her rounds less frequently.

On a larger scale, Obama administration officials have said 750,000 Americans could be out of work by the end of the year, and the Bipartisan Policy Center said 1 million jobs might be lost. But some economists have said those numbers are exaggerated, though they still put the job losses in the hundreds of thousands.
Air travel delays

The cuts also have begun to affect air travel, too. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is furloughing employees, said in a statement Wednesday that there were 1,025 delayed flights around the country Tuesday "attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough."

"Nashville International Airport is not among the airports that we expect to see serious delays on a daily basis," the statement said. "However, air traffic controllers at all of our facilities will be subject to furloughs. Depending on the time of day, the weather and traffic conditions at other airports, it's possible that delays still could affect flight schedules."

The Transportation Security Administration's deputy administrator, John W. Halinski, said in congressional testimony last week that travelers going through airport security "may see lines and wait times increase during the busiest travel periods," though additional funding has helped the agency "maintain its security screening workforce."

Under pressure, the White House signaled Wednesday that it might accept legislation eliminating the FAA furloughs while leaving the rest of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in place.

Before the cuts took effect, the White House estimated that about 340 teachers, teacher aides and other school personnel would lose their jobs across Tennessee, including 140 who help children with disabilities. Meanwhile, 7,000 military civilians throughout the state would be forced to take unpaid leave.

The White House did not estimate job losses in the private sector, but some are already taking effect. More than 125 people received layoff notices April 5 at Aerospace Testing Alliance, the primary contractor at Arnold Engineering Development Center, an Air Force installation near Tullahoma.

Kathy Gattis, a spokeswoman for the contractor, said 29 percent cuts to base operations and maintenance - and almost 10 percent in other areas - necessitated the pink slips at ATA, which has more than 1,800 employees.
Less for schools

Now, more than a month after Congress failed to act to avoid sequestration, its impact on Middle Tennessee is affecting some folks more than others:

• Attorneys in the Office of the Federal Public Defender have been taking one day of unpaid leave per week. One of their clients filed a motion Tuesday in U.S. District Court arguing that he isn't receiving proper legal counsel as a result of the furloughs, while the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is not suffering similar cuts, has been able to prosecute him at full strength.

• Civilians at Arnold Engineering Development Center and other Department of Defense facilities also will have to take a day of unpaid leave per week from mid-June through the end of September.

Jason Austin, director of public affairs at Arnold, said the camaraderie on base will carry people through.

"Whenever someone is hurting, there is a rallying of the troops, if you will," Austin said.

• A projected loss of about $11.7 million in federal dollars - including $4.6 million being cut by the sequester process - helped spur Metro Schools to ask Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Council for 6 percent more money in the upcoming budget, said school board member Will Pinkston, who is chairman of the board's budget committee.

Sequestration will reduce funding for special education students; career and technical education programs; schools with high populations of students from low-income families; professional development for principals and teachers across the district; and initiatives to help increase the academic achievement of students learning the English language, said Julie McCargar, Metro Schools' executive director of federal programs.

• The Metro Development and Housing Agency won't be able to reach as deep into its waiting list when distributing housing vouchers to bridge the gap between what public housing residents can afford to pay and what they owe in rent.

Of the approximately 28,000 people in public housing in Nashville, about 9,000 are on the waiting list for vouchers, MDHA spokesman Mark Drury said. They'll probably have to wait longer for help.

"The issue is how quickly we can address the need out there," he said.

Drury said the agency's public housing program is on track in 2013 to get just 82 percent of the money it received in 2012.

• Second Harvest Food Bank is one of many food banks across the country that would lose federal funding for food storage and distribution, though the amount of money at stake is not yet clear, spokeswoman Tasha Kennard said.

"We know it's coming," she said. "It's making everyone pretty nervous right now."
'Blows my mind'

As Tyrese cooed, drooled, burped and smiled at his visitors on a recent afternoon, Cook asked the 4-month-old boy's mother about his eating, sleeping and teething. She talked about an upcoming checkup and shots at the doctor's office, modeling healthy eating habits and giving the baby plenty of opportunities to move around.

Cook also explained how to help the boy avoid choking hazards. Anything that can fit inside a roll of toilet paper, she advised, is something that Tyrese shouldn't be able to reach and put in his mouth.

His mother said she appreciated the tip.

Tyrese, who had grown an inch in just two weeks, seemed familiar with and happy to see the nurse, who held him before and after placing him on her portable electronic scales. Cook, who has worked with Early Head Start for three years, said she's able to "bond" with the babies in her care.

And the bonding doesn't necessarily end when it's time for Cook to move on to a new group of mothers.

She said it's not uncommon for 2-year-olds in Head Start programs around the city to recognize her from the days when she was in their homes.

"It just blows my mind," she said.

Smith, who studies cosmetology and hopes to open her own salon, said she and Tyrese would prefer to keep seeing Cook just as much as they've gotten used to over the past four months.

"Her coming every week and keeping me up on stuff, it's better than spacing it out," Smith said.

"I don't really have a lot of people to ask."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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