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Federal sequester cuts felt locally with job losses, program cuts

Alison Demadis worked in the food lab at the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center last June. About 1,500 workers there will be taking a 20 percent pay cut.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File

Alison Demadis worked in the food lab at the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center last June. About 1,500 workers there will be taking a 20 percent pay cut.

In less than three weeks, five employees at Beverly Municipal Airport will likely be unemployed.

At Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, managers are expecting to cut back on seasonal employees just as tourism season gets underway.

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About 1,500 employees of the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center are bracing for a 20 percent pay cut by way of 14 unpaid furlough days before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

These are just some of the very local ways communities surrounding Boston are expected to feel the pain as a result of $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts, known as “sequestration,” that went into effect last month.

While the cancellation of White House visitor tours and the threat to the annual Easter Egg Roll have drawn the national spotlight, the regional effects of the cutbacks have organizers, leaders, and employers on edge because of the potential loss of jobs and services.

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“Personally speaking, I’m very disappointed with the government,” said Robert Mezzetti, manager at Beverly Municipal Airport. “It’s politics and it’s to the detriment [of] traffic control.”

As part of the cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it will shut down 149 air traffic control towers, including those at Beverly, Lawrence, and Norwood airports. The closures are scheduled to begin Sunday. In Beverly, it won’t happen until April 21 and will effectively end the employment of five FAA contractors, Mezzetti said.

‘This is a serious situation,but it gets worse in succeeding years.’

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A tower is not necessary for planes to safely use the airport, which accommodates small and large corporate aircraft, because pilots coordinate their locations with one another using a common traffic frequency, Mezzetti said. But he worries that some private corporations may opt to forgo using airports without towers, causing him to lose out on landing and fueling fees. The impact could extend to surrounding communities that would miss out on corporate spending dollars, he argued.

In less than three weeks, five employees at Beverly Municipal Airport will likely be unemployed.

Janet Knott/Boston Globe/file

In less than three weeks, five employees at Beverly Municipal Airport will likely be unemployed.

With the cuts starting to ripple across the region and the country, many agency officials and community leaders hope Washington gets a handle on the federal budget process before the sequester cuts extend into the next fiscal year, starting in October.

Nancy Nelson, superintendent at Minute Man National Historical Park spanning Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln, said she has adhered to a hiring freeze on three vacant positions, eliminated two seasonal jobs, reduced custodial contracts, and cut back on travel, training, and purchases in order to meet the 5 percent budget cut to the National Park Service.

All in all, it means a reduction of $137,000 to the current budget, which she hopes is not felt by the more than one million annual visitors who, on average, spend $69,000 in local communities.

“The communities next to some parks are very dependent on the tourism of the parks,” Nelson said, adding that if things don’t change, the parks could see an 8 percent sequester cut next fiscal year. “With any reduction in seasonal or permanent staffing, at some point visitors will notice a decline in visitor services and maintenance.”

At Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, superintendent Marianne Peak had to cut $123,000 from the current budget, also by eliminating two seasonal positions and adhering to a hiring freeze.

“We’re going to start off our season with the hope that the visitor will not feel the impact,” she said. “To not serve a visitor would mean the local community would be impacted by sequestrations.”

Celeste Bernardo, superintendent at Lowell National Historical Park, said reducing the park’s budget by $412,000 forced her to cut all funding to an outdoor youth theater program, as well as partial funding to the popular Lowell Folk Festival, which will be reduced by one stage this summer.

Seasonal cuts and hiring freezes could mean some visitors may find themselves on vintage trolley tours that don’t have a tour guide starting this spring, Bernardo said.

“It’s kind of a reduction in services, but things will not close,” she said. “We tried to make cuts with less impact to the public. That’s going to get us through the year, but that’s not sustainable for the future.”

A $41 billion sequestration cut to the US Department of Defense will equate nationwide to a 20 percent salary cut by way of 14 furlough days for civilian employees, including 2,000 at Hanscom Air Force Base, and 1,500 at the Natick Soldier Systems Center.

For employees of Natick Soldier Systems Center, a military research and development complex, the unpaid days will amount to a $6.3 million salary cut, said spokesman John Harlow. The cuts also include a hiring freeze on 55 positions, not renewing 71 contract positions, and releasing 57 student employees, he added.

In addition to defense cuts, other impacts to the state include cuts to teacher and teacher aide jobs, public safety grants, and funding to some social service programs, including for domestic violence and senior assistance.

Widespread cuts to social programs tend to affect low-income communities first and foremost, said Gladys Vega, executive director at nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative. She said that in Chelsea, where some classroom sizes average between 22 to 28 students per teacher and where social programs are vital, the sequester cuts are going to be devastating.

“We’re extremely afraid because we believe we’ll suffer,” Vega said. “Sequester cuts harm communities like Chelsea — inner cities.”

The sequester cuts could indirectly make it harder for already strapped foundations to donate funds to organizations like the collaborative, which offers services ranging from finding summer jobs for teens, to helping the city’s vast immigrant population, Vega said.

For the state’s elderly, federal funds were cut by $421,000 for the current fiscal year, but thanks to rotating funds from last year, the state will be able to absorb the hit, said Al Norman, executive director of Mass Home Care, a network of area nonprofits that provide home-based care for seniors. However, there may be additional sequester cuts to nutrition assistance funding, and fuel assistance programs, he said.

It is the unknown that worries Norman the most.

“I don’t want to alarm seniors, I don’t want to cry wolf, this is a serious situation, but it gets worse in succeeding years,” Norman said. “We still think a lot of the paint is wet here. We don’t know what or when we’re going to be told about the depth of the cuts. . . . We’re trying not to overreact.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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