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Federal budget cuts would hit South Florida from ports to national parks

At PortMiami, federal dollars fund Customs agents, security operations and cargo inspectors. But with a historic cut in federal spending set to begin Friday, port director Bill Johnson must contemplate how to keep the place running with less help from Washington.

“I don’t want to have a bunch of rotten tomatoes,”Johnson said Tuesday. “Or disgruntled cruise passengers.”

This week brought similar discouraging thoughts, scenarios and forecasts from hundreds of agencies, charities and businesses throughout South Florida as the mystery of a federal spending “sequester” approached. On Friday, federal law requires the White House to begin to cut spending by $85 billion this year, the trigger from a 2011 deficit-reduction rule designed to force a compromise on bringing down the nation’s debt.

Republicans and Democrats haven’t reached a deal, and Washington watchers don’t expect one by Friday. What once seemed a remote possibility now threatens to rattle how South Florida spends at least some of its federal dollars, while leaving many to plan for contingencies they’re not sure will actually happen.

The full scope of the furlough’s impact remains unclear — both nationally and in South Florida. But as the deadline approaches, more details on cutbacks and preparations are surfacing. Here’s a look at some of the sequester’s potential impacts across the region.

EDUCATION: In Miami-Dade, where the federal government invests about $218 million a year in K-12 education, the nation’s fourth-largest school district is bracing for close to $20 million in cuts.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the 9 percent sequestration rate anticipated this year by the Obama administration would strip $10.3 million from Title I funding, which provides support for academic programs for economically disadvantaged students. Another $1.7 million would be cut from Title II funding for professional development and class size reduction. And about $900,000 would come from federal funds that go toward educating English language learners — a key population in a county where close to 70,000 students were born in another country.

“We’re talking about poor children, students with disabilities and English language learners,” he said. “Some of the most fragile communities of students would be the most impacted. It’s unacceptable to us, so we budgeted in a way to protect” them.

Carvalho said that following last year’s budget stand-off and the ensuing credit downgrade by S&P, Miami-Dade schools anticipated that Congress would be unable to find a compromise to avoid the cuts come 2013. So the district spent judiciously on supply and equipment dollars, where it had discretion, to avoid trying to pull back dollars already spent, he said.

“That to us was a real strong signal and we prepared for it,” he said.

Still, Carvalho said the district is only prepared to avoid “catastrophic” programming and personnel cuts for the remainder of the year. He said another year of reduced funding would likely mean up to 350 layoffs as well as programming cuts.

AIR TRAVEL: Republicans have accused the White House of predicting severe consequences from cuts that amount to just 2 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. And in the list of sequester impacts, chaos at the nation’s airports has gotten significant attention.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of gridlock at Miami International Airport, which sees an average load of 100,000 passengers per day, during a recent visit to the global travel hub. Executives at the airport say they don’t know what to expect Friday because it’s not known when unpaid furloughs and other cutbacks would start thinning out the ranks of security screeners, air-traffic controllers and other federal staffers that are critical to MIA’s operations. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport could also be affected.

Miami International’s director, José Abreu, said “no one is really sure what is going to happen” but that he expected staffing cuts to unfold gradually. But cutbacks on staffing for an airport already begging for more Customs inspectors and federal screeners will mean headaches for travelers, he said.

“During peak hours the system breaks down every day,” he said. “Now, it’ll be even worse."

MILITARY: All 780 civilian military employees at the Pentagon’s Southern Command headquarters in Doral, Homestead’s air base and at an outpost in Key West would stay home from work one day a week if the sequester stretches more than one month, spokesman José Ruiz said. The Pentagon does not expect to cut back payroll for the region’s 550 uniformed personnel, he said.

Ruiz, a civilan employee, would be one of the workers to lose a day’s pay for 22 weeks starting April 25. The unpaid furloughs would end in September.

PORTS: At PortMiami, Johnson said he has canceled travel plans to be on site when the sequester arrives. Friday typically is a busy day both for cruise ships and cargo operations.

The start of the cuts falls during a busy time for fresh produce in South Florida, adding urgency to the shipment of goods out of Latin America. That means potential impacts for both PortMiami and Port Everglades.

“March is crazy melon season — melon madness,’’ said Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy. “You don’t want fresh produce sitting on the docks.’’

RESEARCH: At Florida International University, the sequester has been causing problems for months.

Andres Gil, vice president for research development, said the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation began tightening up on research dollars during past budget crises. With the March sequestration deadline looming, FIU has seen a general 10 percent cut in grant dollars and more difficulty getting research positions funded, Gil said.

“We have already been impacted by it. That’s what the public doesn’t realize,’’ he said. A cutback in research dollars will mean significant strain for a school that gets about $90 million a year in science and medical grants from Washington.

At the University of Miami, medical research grants account for the bulk of nearly $400 million in federal dollars the school receives each year — not counting Medicare and Medicaid payments for its hospital. On Thursday, UM issued a statement on the sequester that said in part: “Impacts will be gradual, but profound if fully implemented. Will negatively impact hospital operations, teaching and training, and research.”

Despite the ongoing spending cuts from Washington, Gil said FIU should be able to manage with fewer federal dollars. He’s working this week to find university funding for a research position after federal dollars fell through for the full-time job. “We’ll be creative,’’ he said. “We’ll get through it.”

NATIONAL PARKS: Since the winter and spring are high season for the Biscayne and Everglades national parks, the sequester deadline arrives just as the peak of visitors starts to ebb. As a result, park officials don’t expect to have to cut back on staff who work with visitors.

“The mosquitoes will return soon,’’ said Dan Kimball, superintendent of Everglades National Park. He’s fortunate not to have summer crowds because the sequester would mean losing 17 full-time positions that are currently vacant. Among them: an ecologist supervisor, a senior biologist and Kimball’s deputy.

“It would be challenging,” Kimball said. “Without a deputy superintendent, I’d have to spend more time on day-to-day operations and less time on the ecosystem restoration project.”

FEDERAL CONTRACTORS: At Goodwill Industries of South Florida, production of military uniforms will continue through the sequester. Deliveries might be a problem.

Dennis Pastrana, CEO of the nonprofit, said none of Goodwill’s $25 million worth of Pentagon contracts come up for renewal until May, and most run through 2013. That gives Pastrana confidence that Goodwill can afford to keep its assembly lines staffed well past Friday.

“The contracts we have already been signed and funded,’’ he said. Military officials “say so far we are not going to be impacted.”

Goodwill pairs disabled residents with manufacturing jobs, and the organization produces both military uniforms and flags for the Pentagon. Pastrana said one immediate concern is whether Pentagon cuts will impact the supply chain — leaving Goodwill with products to ship, but understaffed depots unable to accept them. “The warehouse that receives it could be shut down,’’ he said.

Pastrana’s big worry: sequester stretches into the summer or longer: “If this is prolonged for several months, it’s likely they won’t issue new contracts.”

Miami Herald staff writers Cammy Clark, Chuck Rabin and David Smiley contributed to this report.