CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - For 37 years straight, Joseph P. Riley Jr. has sat behind the mayor’s desk here, shaping this city and its budget.
On a recent afternoon, Riley, 69, reached for a draft copy of next year’s spending plan and wondered aloud about what might get cut should politicians in Washington fail to find an agreement this month, unleashing $600 billion worth of spending reductions and tax hikes next year.
Hiring new police officers for the city of 123,000 could be put on hold, Riley said. A new piece of equipment for the fire department would have to wait. Sanitation workers might be in trouble, too.
“The thought that they would allow the economic harm that would ensue if we went over the fiscal cliff is mind-boggling,” said Riley, a Democrat who was elected to his 10th term last year.
Charleston, a beautiful city steeped in history and awash in tourist dollars, would seem at first glance a world apart from the harm that could be caused by the combination of spending cuts and higher taxes. Economists predict its arrival could send the United States hurtling back into a recession.
At its edges, however, Charleston harbors the people who are most vulnerable to Washington’s intransigence, making the city an emblem of a country’s worry and of the powerlessness people feel in the face of Washington’s indecision.
The sting of automatic cuts would be felt acutely by those who work in the defense sector and the poor. They form two prominent groups in Charleston County who may share little but the knowledge that federal belt-tightening is less a nuisance than an existential threat.
In South Carolina, defense spending accounts for $15.7 billion in annual economic activity - more than one in 10 dollars spent in the state - and nearly 140,000 jobs.
The Charleston area alone, which includes a large Air Force base and a Navy facility, holds more than 66,000 defense jobs and nearly half of the state’s military economic activity, according to a report released last month by the South Carolina Department of Commerce.
While Charleston, like the rest of the state, has seen a boom in military spending over the last decade, the area has the state’s second-highest concentration of people living in poverty, according to 2010 U.S. census data. More than one in four children live in poverty in the surrounding county.
From the anticipated cuts to the military to the shrinking of the safety net, Charleston shows what’s at stake should the United States fall off the fiscal cliff.
A fast-talking engineer originally from Detroit, Michigan, Rebecca Ufkes founded UEC Electronics with her husband in neighboring Hanahan 17 years ago. Walking past employees in blue lab coats assembling components for military vehicles and commercial products last week, Ufkes described the chilling effect the possibility of cuts have had on Charleston’s defense industry.
In September, Ufkes traveled to Washington as a part of a lobbying effort organized by the Aerospace Industry Association, hoping to impress politicians with the dangers facing her 200-person company and its competitors should the anticipated $500 billion in defense cuts, over 10 years, come to pass.
She came away encouraged by her state’s largely Republican representation in Washington but frustrated by other lawmakers.
“South Carolina is a very pro-business state,” she said. “They are very keen on economics. It’s just that we are only one of 50 states.”
Ufkes, 48, said she worries not only about the uncertainty that has left defense contractors unsure where to invest but the impending tax increases, which she said will put her company, active in the commercial marketplace as well, at a disadvantage against foreign rivals.
“Probably the solution is not going to be perfect for UEC,” she said, “but I don’t want it to be devastating. Compromise and devastation are not the same thing.”
With a mug declaring, “Failure is not an option,” sitting on her desk, Ufkes predicted that her company would make it, no matter how devastating the cuts are.
“If we don’t survive,” she said. “I don’t know who will.”
Five miles (eight km) from Ufkes’ cutting-edge electronics manufacturer is the struggling North Charleston neighborhood of Chicora-Cherokee, where Bill Stanfield and his wife, Evelyn Oliveira, arrived fresh out of Princeton Theological Seminary 10 years ago.
They founded Metanoia, a development organization focusing on bettering the community by securing housing loans, planting a garden, and running after-school and summer programs.
Through government services like AmeriCorps, the national volunteer group, and funds from sources like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Stanfield said his group received nearly a fifth of its funding from the federal government last year.
With politicians facing immense pressure over limiting cuts to entitlements like the Medicare health insurance program for seniors and the Social Security retirement program, advocates for the poor say they expect painful reductions in spending on education and housing.
“I don’t know if our housing program would survive,” Stanfield, 39, said.
Cuts to education will hit South Carolina hard, where the schools have bled money over the last five years.
According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, South Carolina’s cuts to education have been the fifth largest in the country, slicing 18 percent off of per-student spending during that period.
The Obama administration, which Republicans consider a profligate spender, has felt like lean times in neighborhoods like Chicora-Cherokee, Stanfield said.
“You know Mitt Romney said that people voted for Obama because of gifts?” Stanfield said. “There’s this misconception that President Obama has been a gravy train of funding. There was more funding under President Bush of these organizations than under Obama.”
‘GAME OF CHICKEN’
Last month, Riley, the Charleston mayor, went to Washington with a group of fellow city leaders, Democrats and Republicans, to lobby the White House and Congress to save cities from drastic cuts.
Vice President Joseph Biden and Democratic leaders from the House of Representatives and Senate met with the mayors. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders in Congress declined their invitation, Riley said.
While Riley supports Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on income earned over $250,000, a sticking point in the negotiations, he and other mayors cautioned that ending the tax-free status of municipal bonds would strangle cities’ access to needed capital.
Riley returned to Charleston feeling like a deal, which could prevent the harshest blows from hitting his city, its residents and jobs, was in the offing. Now, he said, he is not so sure.
“It looks like it’s a game of chicken,” he said, “and there are signals that they are going to go through with it.”
Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Beech