Also concerned are community leaders, who say the recently proposed legislation could harm the local economy, which is driven in large part by depot activities.
“The depot is an economic engine for this part of the state,” said Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce President Sherri Sumners. “Not a day goes by that I haven’t been thinking about jobs at the depot … even things like (depot employees) going back to regular shifts with no overtime reduces the amount of disposable income that is available.”
Most of the proposed legislation — recommended by some GOP representatives in Congress as a way to reduce the national deficit — calls for a series of cuts for federal workers for the rest of fiscal 2011, including two-week furloughs, one-year pay freezes (on top of the two-year pay freeze enacted by President Barack Obama and Congress in November), hiring freezes and greater employee contributions to federal pensions.
Leaders of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees call the cuts an unfair attack on all federal workers, but especially on Anniston’s nearly 4,000 depot employees.
“When they freeze federal workers’ pay, in actuality we’re bringing home less, our buying power is less, and it’s actually a pay deduction. And on top of that, we are paying additional for retirement benefits, our health care premiums are going up, and we have to retire later,” AFGE Local 1945 President Everett Kelley said.
“When you start cutting benefits and freezing pay, that doesn’t just affect me personally as a federal employee, that affects the depot and the community at large.”
Sumners agreed, noting that between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion is circulated back into the Calhoun County economy each year thanks to the depot.
Ray Van Schoubroek, a union consultant, said that amount could be significantly lowered by what he calls the proposed attacks on federal workers. The ability of depot workers to spend money at local businesses would be hindered if the legislation to freeze pay and hiring and impose furloughs is passed. And that’s on top of proposals made last year by a bipartisan fiscal committee to raise the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 69 and to ask employees to make as much as a 7 percent greater contribution to their pensions, Van Schoubroek said.
“It’s economics. It has to do with the revenue that goes back into the community over a year’s time,” he said. “If one worker is losing $1,200 a year, multiply that by 4,000; that could mean there’s 4,800,000 (dollars) not going back into the community.”
The fiscal 2011 payroll for the depot’s 4,151 federal employees was $305 million, depot Public Affairs Officer Clester Burdell said.
Christopher Westley, associate professor of economics at Jacksonville State University, said the proposed measures could significantly affect the buying power of that large payroll, which, as Van Schobroek noted, could significantly damage the local economy.
But Westley said that’s because the Anniston-Calhoun economy is not diverse enough and is too reliant on the military sector.
“That’s why this is so serious. If something like this were to happen, say, in Mobile, it would be devastating, but it wouldn’t be as bad,” he said. “If all of those things (proposed cuts) happen, it would have a big impact on the local economy because we don’t have as diversified an economy as we need to.”
Westley said he places some of the blame for “lack of diversity” on local leaders for not focusing more attention on attracting a variety of industries to the area. But he’s quick to point out all the economic perks that came with heavy promoting of the military sector.
“Normally, politicians want to throw money at the depot … and the fed’s been very accommodating of those types of policies,” Westley said. “And now it looks like those are not working anymore, and there’s a backlash.”
But Sumners said she and other local leaders are working hard to continue to convey their concerns about the proposed cuts for federal workers to local U.S. representatives like Republican Congressman Mike Rogers.
Chamber of Commerce representatives are in contact with those government representatives on a daily basis, Sumners said.
Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson said he also plans to start making phone calls on the depot workers’ behalf.
“I will make my contacts and stress to them what they already know,” he said. “I am concerned, because the depot is the number-one employer in the county; therefore, everybody should be concerned.”
Shea Snider, a spokeswoman for Rogers, said in an e-mail statement that Rogers is aware of how the proposed legislation could affect depot workers.
“But as all of us across Calhoun County know all too well, the Federal government is broke. This tough economy is requiring most Americans to tighten their financial belts, and the Federal government is not exempt from having to make some tough choices too,” Snider said on behalf of Rogers, who is not a co-sponsor of any of the bills that propose the furloughs, a continued pay freeze or other cuts.
“Congressman Rogers is continuing to study closely the many options for helping get our nation’s fiscal house in order,” she said.
As for Kelley and Van Schoubroek, they plan to develop a lobbying plan to help depot workers fight against the cuts being considered by Congress.
The union will hold a meeting in a depot building Tuesday to discuss those plans.
“This community has to come together to protect the Anniston Army Depot,” Kelley said. “The bottom line is: What they do to federal employees affects what happens at the depot. This community will be impacted in a negative way if the wheel keeps rolling like it is.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.