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Don’t panic. That’s the message touted by St. Mary’s County business and government leaders developing strategies to mediate a range of “what ifs” created by Congress’ failure to establish a budget, and by the threat of massive federal budget cuts, called sequestration.

There’s a growing sense that some congressional leaders are willing to let the deep, automatic budget cuts, the prospect of which were originally intended to make Congress work harder to find a solution, soon become reality. And the nation’s defense budget would be hit hard, with measurable effects nationwide, and trickling down to communities, like St. Mary’s, that are dependent on the military.

“I don’t want to minimize the situation,” said Bill Scarafia, president and CEO of the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce, “but, there is a possibility sequestration will not happen.”

Sequestration will take effect in three weeks — March 1 — if Congress does not take alternative action. A continuing resolution, which has allowed government agencies to continue functioning until Congress develops a budget, will expire March 27.

Defense contractors, local government officials and leaders at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, “we are all communicating,” Scarafia said. “People are working at every level to ensure the Navy can accomplish their mission with as little disruption to the community and employees as possible.”

The commander of Naval Air Systems Command sent an email to its employees earlier this week, explaining that fiscal constraints could lead to a $3.5 billion cut from its budget in fiscal year 2013. The Department of Defense and the Chief of Naval Operations have asked commands to develop plans to mitigate the impact of sequestration and other funding reductions.

To reduce spending as quickly as possible, the email said, NAVAIR has enacted a hiring freeze, with few exceptions, as well as reduced travel, training and supply purchases. Civilian employees also face potential furloughs, starting in mid-April, of one day a week for up to 22 weeks. Spending reductions also are planned for contracts, to include contractor employees. “Obviously, this is causing angst in the contractor and civil service community,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). “Everybody is affected by this at the end of the day.

“What happens to property values in the long term? How do we as commissioners attempt to execute a budget with a series of unknowns?” he asked. “We’re going to have to take a very pragmatic approach about it.”

Morgan said federal, state and local governments, as well as private industry, have to work together. As for the community, he said, “Let’s just try to be calm as we can and understand a lot of the moving pieces are obviously going to be spurred by emotion and spurred by rumor.”

In the meantime, he and his colleagues have decisions to make for the county to build roads, improve access to health care and keep children safe. “I’m not giving up on FDR Boulevard. I have to worry about schools, the hospital, the Health Enterprise Zone and the north end of the county. We just can’t sit there and say the sky is falling,” Morgan said.

“St. Mary’s really needs to count its blessings,” said Steve Anderson, county director of economic and community development. “They’ve got one hell of a good government.”

The county is putting together a comprehensive strategy, he said. “Commissioners are girding their loins,” Anderson said. “They’re mentally prepared and emotionally up to the task.”

The county has a surplus fund that can help make up for what’s lost in income taxes to keep services going and a long-range plan to recruit new businesses and lessen dependence on federal funds, Anderson said.

Right now, he said, he’s courting three companies, two specializing in manufacturing and the other in avionics. It’s a deal that could mean “700 new jobs.” Anderson said he couldn’t reveal the company names because they’re still in negotiations, but, if all goes well, those new businesses would attract other companies to support the work.

Sequestration is a looming threat, Anderson said, “but, I don’t think it will be as severe as some are predicting.”

nclark@somdnews.com