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Valley Could See Effects

Hanover — The chatter around the large-scale budget cuts known as sequestration may be centered in Washington, but in the Upper Valley, a department of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could feel a large crunch down the line.

About 250 people work at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, according to public affairs officer Bryan Armbrust, and all of them could face furloughs under the spending cuts, potentially taking a 20 percent pay cut through September.

It’s too early, however, to know the extent of the cuts, Armbrust said, and how heavily — and when — CRREL would be affected.

“Yes, people are anxious, and they should be,” he said. “But you can’t be totally anxious yet, because you don’t know what to be anxious about.”

CRREL operates under the U.S. Department of Defense, which employs 900,000 civilian workers. Armbrust said CRREL must follow the orders from the Pentagon as they come down. For now, CRREL officials remain in the dark.

“It’s not unique,” Armbrust said. “We are simply following along with whatever Washington is going to decide. And we will know it the same time everyone in the world finds out, unfortunately.”

The broader impacts of the budget cuts, which are targeted at defense and discretionary domestic spending, remain to be seen. But Paul Boucher, the president and CEO of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, isn’t too worried.

Problems could arise, Boucher said, if cuts force the government to scale back work done by federal contractors in the Upper Valley, which could potentially force those companies to scale back their operations.

But the slow burn of the issue — President Obama compared it more to a “tumble downward” than a fall off a cliff — means that Boucher hasn’t yet heard any frightened talk in the business community.

“I think it was just like the last crisis,” Boucher said, referring to the “fiscal cliff” brouhaha in January, which ended in a last minute deal. “It came and went. And I think people are expecting the same thing out of this one.”

There are government departments in the Upper Valley that escaped the ax, such as the White River Junction VA Medical Center, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“(The Office of Management and the Budget) has made it clear that VA is exempt from sequestration,” VA spokesman Andrew LaCasse wrote in an email. “This includes care, benefits and administrative expenses.”

Similarly, Dartmouth College is not planning to change the speed at which it hires, according to spokesman Justin Anderson, even though sequestration could affect federal grants.

“We have plans in place to mitigate the effects of sequestration, with an emphasis on protecting personnel and students supported by grants wherever possible,” Anderson wrote in an email. “In the short term, effective award management and internal resources will be used to sustain most grant activities.”

For some in the Twin States, the looming cuts could become tangible — and soon. For instance, civilian defense employees of the Vermont National Guard could face 20 percent pay cuts due to work furloughs that might come as soon as April, Vermont Public Radio reported Thursday.

“The cuts shouldn’t be as drastic for the military,” Staff Sgt. Chris Walczak, of Montpelier, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, told VPR. “Am I going to be able to pay the tuition for my daughter’s schooling? My wife might have to go back to work full time, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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