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Pentagon cuts threaten economies in military towns

Shannon Meeks behind the counter of her restaurant, Shannon's Cafe, in Warner Robins, Ga. She says she’s already seeing customers cutting back because of the possible Pentagon furloughs.

While Washington is preoccupied with immigration, the clock continues to tick on deep automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to kick in by the end of February. Unless Congress acts, billions of cuts to domestic and defense programs will go into effect at the first of March.

With its budget uncertain, the Pentagon planning to ask Congress for permission to furlough some 800,000 civilian employees one day a week, without pay. The potential savings is $5 billion.

But in a military town like Warner Robins, Ga., that number could equal devastation. The city, about 15 miles south of Macon, is home to Robins Air Force Base.

“The city didn’t really exist prior to the Air Force base being located there,” says city attorney Jim Elliott. “So what happens to them, good or bad, is good or bad for the community.”

There’s no doubt the Pentagon’s announcement of possible furloughs is bad for this city. Elliott estimates one in four residents works at the base.

Natasha Ryan is one of them. She first heard about the furloughs while heading to work this morning.

“I’m included,” Ryan says as she pays for lunch at Shannon’s Cafe, just yards off the base. “If it happens -- I hope that it doesn’t -- but if it happens, I’m preparing for it.”

Ryan says she’ll rely on savings to get through, and she’ll have to cut back on spending.

Those words scare Shannon Meeks, who opened Shannon’s Café here three years ago. She says she’s already seeing customers cutting back because of the news.

“When we were busy, we’d be full and we’d have a wait,” she says. But lunches like that are few and far between these days.

Her entire back dining room is empty. The lights are turned off.

“As soon as the people at the base start hearing stuff like that, they automatically stop spending their money. They stop coming to eat,” Meeks says. “We can see week-by-week just how much business we’ve lost whenever something like that is on the news.”

Even if Congress avoids sequestration, the Pentagon is still facing an uncertain future.

“We don’t have an appropriation for this year, so we might run out of money on March 27th, along with all the rest of the federal government,” says Dept. of Defense spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins.

And when the military runs out of money, so do places like Warner Robins, Ga.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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