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County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said Thursday he’s “99 percent sure” sequestration will happen, and that St. Mary’s and its largest employer will have to sort out the fiscal hardships that would follow.

Morgan’s was just one voice at an “industry day” event, hosted by The Patuxent Partnership and facilitated by the Naval Air Systems Command, to discuss the effects of deep cuts to the Pentagon and other fiscal restraints due to go into effect as early as March 1 unless Congress takes alternative action.

Attendees filled a large conference hall at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center in California. Once Garry Newton, NAVAIR’s deputy commander, began to speak, the room was largely silent except for his voice and pens scribbling across note pads.

Newton, the command’s top civilian, said he wanted to answer questions and dispel rumors. He also encouraged those attending to contact his communication team to ensure they had another avenue for questions to be answered.

He used PowerPoint slides and charts, and made eye contact with audience members as he paced the hall aisle by aisle, essentially elaborating on what the Department of Defense and the media have been saying for months:

Billions of dollars in cuts are on the horizon this fiscal year alone. The government is operating at last year’s funding levels. It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to transfer money from one spending area to another.

Navy ships that were supposed to deploy aren’t. Ships that were supposed to come home haven’t. At least one carrier that was supposed to be dry docked and out of corrosive elements remains in the water because the Navy, right now, can’t afford to do otherwise. And, the service is still waiting for word about whether aircraft maintenance will be stopped during this fiscal year’s third and fourth quarters.

If the fiscal cuts remain in place long term, it could invalidate the Navy’s overall plans for defense.

In the meantime, about 30,000 business and federal workers associated with NAVAIR are wondering what will happen to their jobs.

Newton said, “we have no idea” how unpaid furloughs would be executed. If the government decides furloughs must take place, he said, NAVAIR will develop detailed plans about how to impose them on federal civilian workers only. (Contractors would have to wait for guidance from their companies.)

NAVAIR has said that, if furloughs do take place, they could happen as early as mid-April, and would be one day a week for up to 22 weeks. This would effectively cut civilian salaries by 20 percent for that period.

During the question-and-answer period, an hour of relative silence was interrupted by faint gasps from all corners of the room when someone stood up and said he “didn’t buy” the fact that people should just have to “wait and see” what happens in the aftermath of budget cuts.

Jobs and quality of life in St. Mary’s hang in the balance, he said. “We should have been talking about this a long time ago.”

The decision about sequestration and other budget restraints, ultimately, is up to Congress.

nclark@somdnews.com