The music has stopped for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard band is the latest casualty of almost $300 million in federally mandated cuts that encompass oil spill response programs, housing aid and even everyday operating expenses for the service’s ships and aircraft.
“It’s true the challenges we face are real, and like everyone in our government we may be asked to do less with less, or at least do the same work with different means,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp in his annual State of the Coast Guard address.
While the exact details of the Coast Guard budget cuts will be decided in the coming weeks, some details have already emerged.
Coast Guard officials contacted by the Daily Mirror repeatedly said Alaska will be affected less than other regions of the country, but that doesn’t mean Alaska — and in particular Kodiak — will remain immune from cuts.
Already, the Coast Guard has announced changes to its housing policy. Instead of giving new Kodiak arrivals a choice of where to live, base housing will be the only option until it fills up.
While married housing fills up each year, the policy has been extended to single Coastguardsmen and women, who will live in barracks until those reach capacity. Normally each year, some single men and women chose to move out and get apartments in town.
On Friday, the Coast Guard announced it will reinstate its tuition assistance program, which repays active-duty members for tuition spent on education. The program was preserved in a budget bill approved by Congress on Thursday, but it comes as a double-edged sword — the Coast Guard received no additional money to pay for the program used by almost 10,000 people annually.
According to the Government Accounting Office, the biggest cuts to the Coast Guard’s budget are coming in operational expenses — $194 million used to run helicopters, C-130s and Coast Guard cutters, as well as bases across the country.
“What they're going to have to do is … limit their surface and air ops,” said Lt. Veronica Colbath, a spokeswoman for Coast Guard District 17, which oversees Coast Guard operations in Alaska.
“Right now, it is too early to say to you this is where we will cut all of our hours,” she added.
Travel budgets are being cut, as are training budgets. The North Pacific Regional Fisheries Training Center at Base Kodiak “had a 20 percent hit,” Colbath said. That means about one fewer student per class in the school that trains Coast Guardsmen to patrol Alaska fisheries.
While hard-hit, the Kodiak training center is better off than some Coast Guard training programs, which are being shut down entirely.
Colbath confirmed that the Coast Guard will continue its summer operations in the Arctic Ocean. Last year marked the first time the Coast Guard offered regular search-and-rescue operations from Barrow, America’s northernmost city, and Colbath said that program will continue — but in what form, she isn’t sure.
“What Arctic Shield will look like will be different from what we did in 2012,” she said.
In a speech last week at Air Station Sitka, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, in charge of District 17, said booming maritime trade, fishing and oil development mean the Coast Guard can’t reduce force too much in Alaska.
“All of that is Coast Guard activity,” Ostebo said in remarks reported by KCAW-FM. “All of that is more marine trade, more marine environmental responsibility for the Coast Guard. It’s going to require the Coast Guard and Coast Guard aviation assets to have a presence up on the North Slope, and Kodiak is making preparations to be up there, in less capacity than we were last year, but more than we have been traditionally. The point of it is Alaska’s a great place for the Coast Guard.”
In Sitka, however, budget uncertainty means improvements for Coast Guard housing in Sitka are on hold, as are plans for an additional rescue helicopter at that base.
In Kodiak, contracted construction projects may be hurt by an $84 million cut to the Coast Guard’s acquisition division.
In a letter sent to all Coast Guard contractors early this month, the Coast Guard warned, “Such reductions may result in certain planned procurements being cancelled or reduced in scope and certain existing contracts being reduced in scope, terminated or partially terminated.”
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at email@example.com.