The Lowdown on the Federal Shutdown

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By Linda Cicoira — On the isolated Eastern Shore of Virginia alone, the federal government shutdown means 122 Coast Guardsmen have been working without pay, about 1,700 employees and contractors associated with NASA are without work, federal approvals for other programs and answers to proposals are unavailable, and funds for the USDA child nutrition program in local public schools and Section 8 housing could end in a month or two.

Agencies are not answering their phones. And likely more things will go amok.

Wednesday, 25 days after the shutdown began, there was news that President Donald Trump signed a bill guaranteeing back pay for the federal workers, whether they worked or not.

On Jan. 15, a letter went out from Admiral Karl L. Schultz to the local guardsmen. “Today you will not be receiving your regularly scheduled mid-month paycheck,” he wrote. “To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time in our nation’s history that service members in a U.S. Armed Force have not been paid during a lapse in government appropriations … I recognize the anxiety and uncertainty this situation places on you and your family, and we are working closely with service organizations on your behalf.”

Schultz added the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance received $15 million in donations from USAA (United Services Automobile Association, an insurance and finance company). The American Red Cross will help distribute the money. “I am grateful for the outpouring of support across the country, particularly in local communities, for our men and women. It is a direct reflection of the American public’s sentiment towards their United States Coast Guard; they recognize the sacrifice that you and your family make in service to your country … Stay the course, stand the watch, and serve with pride. You are not, and will not, be forgotten.”

Both Accomack and Northampton public schools receive reimbursement for breakfast and lunch for students who qualify for free or reduced meals. The divisions also get money back for students who pay full price.

James Lane, superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), reported to Accomack schools that the federal program is intact through March, but no promises have been made beyond that.

Lane said VDOE “has already been funded for (the) federal fiscal year 2019, through September 30, 2019, and is not at risk of shutting down at this time. (The) federal fiscal year 2019 grants from U.S. DOE should be received by Virginia on schedule this summer. In addition, school divisions are still currently spending previously awarded grants from federal fiscal years 2017 and 2018.”

“I am keenly aware of the implications a prolonged federal government shutdown can have on our Housing Choice Voucher Program,” also known as the Section 8 program, said County Administrator Mike Mason, who is a member of the Accomack-Northampton Regional Housing Authority (A-NRHA). “We are fortunate that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided the December 2018 and January 2019 funding increments to the A-NRHA thereby enabling housing assistance payments to be made in full and on schedule. My fear is that if the shutdown continues, it could impact the authority’s ability to make housing assistance payments in the future. Granted the shutdown would have to continue to almost March before there is real damage to program participants but with the current stalemate, anything is possible.”

Mason asked Elaine Meil, executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, for more insight.

“The impact of the federal shutdown on county operations is minimal,” she told him. “Yes, there are some federal grant reimbursements that are on hold because of the shutdown but they are not significant and do not materially impact our financial position or our operations … Our communication towers are due for some … upgrades but we cannot proceed until the FAA has approved the changes.” That division of the FAA is on furlough.

“My real concern is the economic impact to the county in general,” she said. “There are over 1,700 employees and contractors working for NASA and its tenants both on the main base and Wallops Island … local businesses who cater to their needs are being negatively impacted. If local businesses suffer, so does the county. It’s as simple as that,” she said.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said he “objected to the Senate leaving town for the weekend while hundreds of thousands of federal employees — many of them Virginians — were set to miss paychecks. My objection led to negotiations with (Senate Majority) Leader (Mitch) McConnell that resulted in the Senate unanimously passing our bill to guarantee back pay … I’m thankful that both parties were able to hear the urgency we are feeling in Virginia and work with us on getting this legislation through.”

Accomack supervisors voiced concern Wednesday about changes to the maps in the Coastal Barrier Resources Act being proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. “The county can’t get any answers because there are no workers there,” Mason said.

The maps “designate which areas are not eligible for financial assistance and federal expenditures. The legislation was designed to conserve the rich ecosystem of coastal barriers that are prone to hurricane and major storm events.” Mason said the proposal includes removing 201 acres and adding another 97 acres. Plus, it removes 80 structures and adds 45 buildings. He was unsure if private property is involved. It could keep people from getting flood insurance, he said. “Both Chincoteague and Wachapreague have been alerted.”