County News

Counties step up during federal shutdown

Montgomery County, Md. Councilmember Tom Hucker greets attendees at a “Shutdown Social” he organized for furloughed federal employees. County housing and human services departments answered questions from concerned residents. Photo by Dave Asche

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In the midst of a record federal government shutdown, counties are reaching out to help furloughed workers

When Montgomery County, Md. Councilmember Tom Hucker put out word that he was hosting a “Shutdown Social” potluck for federal workers furloughed due to the government shutdown, he had no idea that more than 600 people would show up.

“I was struck by how many people...when you see hundreds of them in one place, it really is impactful,” Hucker said. Restaurants donated dinner and bands played to give furloughed feds a night out.

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Shutdown impact on federal agencies

“A lot of people said they felt supported by the community,” he said. “They felt like we had their back.”

The county had tables set up to help people with questions on housing and human services and also arranged for utility companies and others to brief residents who might need help with bills.

It’s not just counties near the D.C. area that are getting hit. It’s also furloughed workers in places like Alaska, New Mexico, Alabama and South Dakota. Federal workers in communities across the country are reeling four weeks into the longest federal government shutdown in American history. The partial government shutdown is due to a dispute over funding of a wall along the country’s border with Mexico, a measure that failed in the Senate.

In addition to fears about future federal funding for county programs (see box, this page), county officials are also looking at impacts to everything from tourism to crash investigations. Counties are feeling the heat and helping out where they can.

In Utah, Washington County is spending $1,000 a day, partnering with others to fund trash pickup at Zion National Park, the area’s biggest money maker. In Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park is being kept partially open during the busiest tourism season thanks to donations and a pledge from Hawaii County to fund three days for about $38,000, if needed; funding would come from the county’s department of Research and Development.

The federal government shutdown forced Saginaw County, Mich. sheriff’s deputies into duty. A plane crash left a man dead and the sheriff’s office called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the crash. Because of the shutdown, the FAA directed the county to guard the scene and not touch anything, aside from removing the pilot’s body, Sheriff Bill Federspiel said. The FAA initially wanted to have its own medical examiner do the autopsy, but with that timeline unclear, Saginaw County performed it using a special kit sent by the FAA. Federspiel said he hoped the FAA would reimburse the county for his department’s time spent protecting the scene.

Closer to the nation’s capital, Northern Virginia counts about 178,000 federal employees, with many in Fairfax County, home to the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“It’s not unlike a factory town when the factory is shut down and everyone’s at home stressed out and waiting,” said Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook. “We’re a government town and the government is our factory. It’s a pretty big deal when our number one employer closes its doors.”

The county is stepping up to help by offering free rides on county buses and reducing fees for childcare, he said. The county held a job fair for substitute teacher positions which attracted a lot of furloughed workers. “We’re in the stage right now where we’ve asked all the county agencies to find ways we can help,” Cook said.

In nearby Prince George’s County, Md., county officials there offered up a relief package on Day 20 of the shutdown and like other counties, set up a website of resources for residents. The county waived fees for its fitness centers as well as for before and after childcare at park and rec centers. The county also has an emergency relief fund to help furloughed workers. “I have authorized our county budget director to put an additional $70,000 into our Emergency Assistance Fund, giving us a total of $150,000 to help those with immediate financial need,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said. The fund can help with items such as delinquent mortgages, utility bills and other financial needs.

Federal government shutdown

The shutdown could impact counties in a number of ways, with funding tied to federal agencies. Here’s a look:

  • Human services
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - USDA recently announced a plan to fund SNAP through February despite the partial government shutdown.
    • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) - WIC is not receiving federal funds at all. WIC can continue to operate at the state and local level with any prior-year funding or commodity resources that remain available.
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program - The program expired Dec. 22 with no new funding. The program needs to be reauthorized, and has been operating on a series of short-term extensions since 2010. Given that TANF’s reauthorization is tied to the funding extension, the program cannot issue second-quarter payments. To ensure residents continue to receive TANF benefits, states may use prior-year funding or non-federal funding to continue the program. State spending during the shutdown may be used to meet matching or maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements.
    • Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) - The mandatory/matching portion for the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) has expired with no new funding. States may use prior-year funding or non-federal funding to continue the program.
  • FDA and USDA - At the FDA, overall food safety is taking a hit in routine inspections, guidance development and staff training and technical assistance programs that trickle down to local health inspectors. Work has been suspended in USDA data and reporting offices such as the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the Office of the Chief Economist- World Agricultural Outlook Board (OCE-WAOB) has been suspended causing a lapse in agricultural data and intelligence reporting. While most direct funding programs continue, the non-exempted staff – particularly Rural Development State Directors – are unable to provide support and advice to constituents relying on indirect assistance from USDA Rural Development like guaranteed home loans that are no longer supported by the agency during the partial shutdown.
  • Department of the Interior, The Indian Health Service - The Service has suspended grants that support tribal health programs and preventative clinics run by the Office of Urban Indian Health Programs. Currently clinic employees are working without pay.
    • Full closure or partial staffing at federal lands sites can lead to canceled trips/reduced tourism and public safety issues (illegal camp fires, for example). Search and rescue or law enforcement operations may be curtailed. Permits for projects on public lands (i.e.: applications for permits to drill for oil/gas) will be backlogged. Possible delays in the processing of payments to counties — SRS payments and timber harvest receipt share payments are due to go out in March and a longer shutdown could delay those payments.
  • Environmental Protection Agency
    • Cleanups and inspections at Superfund sites will stop.
    • Inspections for drinking water systems, hazardous waste management sites and chemical facilities will stop.
    • Funding for Clean Water/Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs, brownfields grants, etc. will stop.
    • Signoff on Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act permits and plans will not take place.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
    • FHA loans — processing is impacted — only those committed prior to Dec. 21 are in the approval process.
    • Section 8 Housing Vouchers: Staff is available for first 30 days of the shutdown for payments of Section 8 contracts and rent supplement contracts.
    • Multifamily Housing: No applications for Multifamily FHA mortgage insurance will be accepted or processed.
  • Transportation
    • Counties are involved in a third of the nation’s public airports. As the shutdown continues, TSA agents working without pay are expected to increase the number of “call outs” as they face the looming reality of not receiving their next paycheck, creating not only congestion at the airport but also safety concerns. 
    • Further impacting air travel, almost 18,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees who are not air traffic controllers or safety inspectors continue to be out of work.
    • The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has been almost entirely shut down since Dec. 21.  Essentially all grant activity has been suspended. FTA has also discontinued reimbursement to transit agencies for ongoing operations. 
    • The Federal Railroad Administration has suspended its support to the Build America Bureau regarding the transition of administration for the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing for which local governments are eligible borrowers.
  • Justice and Public Safety
    • Counties will continue justice and public safety operations, however the grants that fund these programs are impacted. As part of the shutdown impacting the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, federal agency grants staff are unavailable to provide assistance counties need to comply with grant requirements. Grant applications from the DHS are not being processed due to the shutdown.

Information courtesy of NACo Government Affairs.

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