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Federal budget cuts caused by sequester ripple across region

Rosanna Taveras figured the federal budget cuts from the so-called sequester would go unnoticed at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami.

But Taveras, the agency’s director, will close a Miami Gardens program that serves about 30 hot lunches a day to elderly residents of an apartment building.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think we were going to be cut,’’ Taveras recalled. “But in the beginning of April, I realized I had to close something.”

Friday’s scheduled closing of the free-lunch program at the Saint Monica senior apartment building captures a string of ripple effects in South Florida from the sequester, a collection of $85 billion worth of spending cuts triggered by the failure of the White House and Congress to agree on deficit-reduction plan.

Although the nation’s airports caught most of the attention from the sequester, the cuts are being blamed for a string of smaller reductions at all levels of government, affecting mostly the elderly and poor.

Miami-Dade County last week alone issued a tally of estimated costs from the sequester for its operations, and the bulk of the $12 million tally comes from $9.5 million worth of security and immigration reductions at Miami International Airport. Beyond the high-profile airport impacts, the summary from Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office shows smaller cuts to social services, including $730,000 in stipends to help the poor pay their utility bills and $25,000 for the county’s victims-assistance office.

The breakdown offers the first detailed look at the sequester’s estimated impact on Miami-Dade, Florida’s biggest county. With the sequester about to enter its third month, the ripple effects from the federal cuts still haven’t been fully measured or estimated by the local governments who rely on Washington to subsidize programs and facilities.

Said Kayla Olsen, Broward County’s budget director: “We’re trying to put together something similar.’’

The Miami-Dade accounting shows MIA missing out on $3.5 million worth of federal security screeners and $6 million in Customs workers — cuts local officials have already blamed for the chaotic first days of the sequester in March, when backlogs at the airport’s international terminal were blamed for four-hour waits to clear Customs and passengers forced to camp out in the MIA auditorium while they waited for a replacement flight.

Congestion and delays are closer to where they were before the cuts, thanks to a natural slowdown in overseas travel at this time of year, said MIA spokesman Gregory Chin. But with the summer vacation season set to officially start this holiday weekend, Chin said the federal cuts will once again be on display in long delays.

“The summer is going to be tough if this doesn’t change,’’ Chin said.

Officially launched on March 1, the sequester is expected to reduce federal spending by about 3 percent, though the mandated cuts are about 8 percent for defense spending and about 5 percent for the impacted domestic programs, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The reduction is small enough that some Republican leaders have embraced the program as a last resort to finally pullback spending by Washington, while their Democratic counterparts contend the loss of federal dollars is a harsh way to avoid higher taxes for the wealthy.

With a stand-off in Washington, local governments and non-profits are managing both short-term cuts while calculating how much money an extended sequester would cost them.

In Miami-Dade, estimates of modest spending cuts for this year are followed by larger ones next year. A drug-treatment program losing $31,000 in the budget year that ends in October is set to lose $116,000 the following year.

An extended rollback in federal dollars also will give agencies fewer options beyond their initial cost-saving cuts. The local organization in Miami-Dade charged with distributing federal dollars earmarked for elderly care initially thought it would have to cut its meals budget by about $1 million this year. But in recent weeks, staff found a way to restore about $250,000 after pulling back grants from providers that ultimately couldn’t produce the meals as promised, said Max Rothman, president of the Alliance for Aging.

Miami-Dade estimated its $89,000 cuts from the Alliance, which administers federal funds for Florida, would amount to a reduction of about 15,000 meals served at senior centers and other gathering places and about 1,800 meals delivered to seniors’ homes. But Rothman said the county was notified last week that roughly half of the money will be restored for Miami-Dade.

Even with the reductions being smaller than anticipated, Rothman said the agencies that rely on Alliance dollars to cover food costs have few options but to rollback service. “When something like this happens and you’re not particularly prepared for it,’’ he said, “you can’t make it up.”

Jewish Community Services lost about $60,000 in Alliance dollars, but president Fred Stock said he was able to raise that much from private donors to fill the gap. But he called that a temporary fix. “You have to understand something: I have to cover that every year,’’ he said.

For Catholic Charities, the loss of $45,000 from the Alliance meant a 5 percent cut for the non-profit’s $800,000 food budget for senior citizens. When she first saw the number in early March, Taveras said she thought they could cutback staff hours or meals throughout the organization’s eight locations where it distributes hot lunches on weekdays to seniors. Taveras said she quickly realized she’d have to give up the location seen as the least essential, and Saint Monica took the hit.

Each day, about 30 people from the Saint Monica tower on the 3400 block of NW 189th Street come down to the dining hall for a meal. Taveras said most are independent enough to cook for themselves in their apartments, but the free lunch gave them an excuse to socialize and helped stretch their grocery budgets.

When she told the residents of the closing, scheduled for Friday, Taveras said they took the news better than she did.

“I was devastated,’’ she said. “They were sad. But they understand is what is going on with the economy, and all of that stuff. They said, ‘We appreciate the services for the time that you gave us.’’’