The federal budget sequester is being felt in Illinois. From the military to airports, signs of spending cuts are showing up. As Rachel Otwell reports, even Abe Lincoln is not immune:
SABLOTNY: “Well folks, let’s go see Abraham Lincoln’s home. Right this way please…”
Bob Sablotny is leading a tour of about 15 people. That’s the maximum amount allowed in a tour-group at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield for safety and preservation reasons. The home is the only one Lincoln ever owned and it’s where he lived when elected president.
SABLOTNY: “…The kitchen we’re in is pretty close to the same size as the one-room log cabin Abraham Lincoln was born in. But it gives you a real sense of the journey Lincoln takes from a space like this eventually to this 3,200 square foot two-story house, and then a little bigger place, you know, the White House…”
Sablotny’s a seasonal worker here at the park, which includes four blocks of historical homes. Unlike other Lincoln sites in the city that are state operated, this is a national park. As a result of the sequester that went into effect earlier this year, historic sites likes this one are watching their budgets shrink further than they already have over past years. Here in Springfield, that means the jobs of people like Sablotny are at stake.
Dale Phillips is superintendent for the Lincoln Home. He says as a direct result of the sequester – the home is losing $140,000 this fiscal year, about five percent of its overall budget. Phillips says that means the budget to run the site is down about $600,000 in 3 years. So what does that mean for operations?
PHILLIPS: “What I’ve had to do in a nutshell is basically reduce all non-essential travel and training. Reduce the bulk of my over-time. The bulk of my supply -money. We’ve pulled back from all external activities. Going out to school groups, doing any activity. I had to bring all of my staff back into the park to meet the basic core mission which is of course providing visitor services here for the home and for the visitor’s center.”
Phillips says all hands are on deck, including his. He’s always involved with virtually every aspect of the park, but now he too will be giving tours of the home. Luckily though, he says, there are also volunteers to fill in the gaps:
PHILLIPS: “Our volunteers logged over 6,000 hours last year. They maintain a lot of the garden, the landscaping, the visitor’s center. Without those volunteers we would really be up the ol’ creek without a paddle.”
The park’s busy season runs from April to November. This year, volunteers will have more duties than ever before Phillips says. They will man the front desk and they too will become tour guides. As Phillips and I walk to the visitor center to meet one of those volunteers, we pass a worker filling in dirt around the old-fashioned wooden walkways. Phillips says this is a good example of the variety of work that must happen to preserve the park – everything from routine maintenance to landscaping.
But this summer, Phillips says he can’t afford most of the extra maintenance staff he would usually hire. And he says the amount of seasonal summer workers will be cut in half. On our walk, we also pass a group of schoolchildren. The peak season here revolves in part around the buses full of children that come to see the home for field-trips.
Sherry Would is working at the front desk at the visitor’s center when we arrive. She’s one of the volunteers who Phillips says help pick up the slack as budgets shrink. Would works 4 hours per week. She says it’s a fun way to stay involved in the community after her retirement. And there’s plenty for her to do:
WOULD: “So far it’s been nothing I can’t handle (laughs).” OTWELL: “And what kinds of things are you doing here?” WOULD: “I give out tickets for the tour. I answer questions, I answer the phone, I direct people to different parts of the park….”
Would says she has a blast doing this. But as the site gets busier, Phillips says one of her jobs may include turning visitors away:
PHILLIPS: “Our tickets to go through the house are free of charge, we give them out first thing in the morning starting every day. First come first serve basis. There will be quite a few days this summer by the end of the day that I will not have enough tickets left to be able to accommodate. We will have to turn some of our visitors away from getting into the house.”
The Lincoln Home, like all parks run by the National Park Service, is nearly completely federally funded. Donations help, but Phillips says it’s tricky to solicit for those. Mostly he just has to wait for donors to come to him. For now, the park is business as usual and Phillips is careful to say that the house our 16th president and his family once lived in will remain in top condition.
PHILLIPS: “We’re holding our own. I mean there’s obviously concern but we understand the situation, we understand the broadness of it. And we will do our best.”
For now, that’s something national parks around the country are striving to do as well. From the Lincoln Home on seventh street in downtown Springfield, I’m Rachel Otwell.