Friday, March 8, 2013

Budget cuts to hit Blaine County

Airport, Forest Service to be most affected

Express Staff Writer

Resources to fight wildfires in Idaho could be cut in the upcoming fire season if the federal “sequester” budget cuts stay in place. Express file photo

One thing is for certain: The national sequester, a series of automatic budget cuts announced by the federal government that went into effect March 1, will affect Idahoans and residents of Blaine County. 

Gov. Butch Otter said last Thursday that the sequester would have a $20 million impact on Idaho, telling a meeting of Farmers Insurance officials that he was frustrated with an “unsustainable” and “dangerous” level of federal spending.

While the state struggles to cope with large-scale cuts, local officials are struggling to determine what the impacts to Blaine County might be.



The Federal Aviation Administration announced late last month that operation of the tower at Friedman Memorial Airport could be on the chopping block, as could that of towers in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and almost 200 other airports across the country.

Friedman Airport Manager Rick Baird received a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration dated March 5 and stating that the tower at Friedman fulfills the criteria for closure, though the agency provides an opportunity for appeal. 

“Negative impact on the national interest is the only criterion the FAA will use for deciding to continue services to an airport,” the letter states. “The FAA is unable to consider local community impact that does not affect the national interest.”

Baird contended that closure of the Hailey air traffic control tower would in fact affect the national interest, and he plans to ask the Airport Authority board to make that case to the FAA.

“Because we have this mountainous environment and we have one road in and one road out, not having the tower will slow things down so significantly that it will have an impact, particularly during busy periods, on the entire national air space system,” he said. 

Baird also said he thinks it’s strange that the FAA would not consider local impacts.

“We thought we were a nation of communities,” he said. “You would think that if [a closure] impacted a community, it would impact the national interest.”

The FAA letter states that the deadline for the Airport Authority board to make its case is March 13.

The letter states that airports or other entities could choose to pay for the towers themselves. Baird said the authority board could choose to fund the tower at an annual cost of $500,000.

Jack Sibbach, spokesman for Sun Valley Co., said the company had no comment on the possibility of helping to fund an airport tower, as it is too early to tell how the situation might develop.

Tower closure would not mean closure of the airport. Baird has said flights to Sun Valley would communicate with a tower in Salt Lake City, a procedure that could cause delays but would not halt flights. He said that without a tower, pilots are more responsible for communicating with one another in the air and on the ground to ensure “separation,” or an acceptable distance between planes.


National forests

U.S. Forest Service employees at the Ketchum Ranger District and the Sawtooth National Forest headquarters in Twin Falls said they were told not to speak to the press about the national sequester, and directed inquires to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees the Forest Service. 

Department spokeswoman Stephanie Chan said Wednesday that a description of the sequester’s impact on each state was not yet available.  However, she passed along a written statement from the agency that says the U.S. Forest Service will suffer a 5.2 percent reduction in funding overall. The cuts could result in 500 fewer firefighters nationwide and 50 to 70 fewer engines for the 2013 fire season, as well as reductions in air support.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise released a report earlier this month stating that even during the 2012 fire season, 52 percent of all firefighter requests for air support were unfilled. 

The USDA also stated that there will be cuts in recreation funding, and the Forest Service will close 670 campgrounds, trailheads and picnic sites across the country during spring and summer. The specific sites that will be closed have not been determined. 



Char Nelson, Blaine County director of operations, said her department is funded almost entirely by county and state money; county roads are maintained with money from the state gas tax and will not be impacted by the sequester. 

“Where we might run into some problems is with federal grants,” she said.

Jerry Flatz, the federal aid manager for the Idaho Transportation Department’s Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, said an upcoming project to widen state Highway 75 from Timmerman Junction to Ketchum will not be affected by federal budget cuts.

“The way I understand it is that the money we work with through the Federal Highway Administration comes from a trust fund that comes from gas taxes,” he said, and is not part of the federal budget affected by the sequester. 



Heather Crocker, director of communication for the Blaine County School District, said the district expects to lose $51,000 in Title 1 funding for low-income and special-education students in fiscal 2014. She said the district will make up those funds by applying money from the its nearly $30 million annual budget stabilization levy. 

“It will not affect the children we serve,” she said.

Kate Wutz:

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