Politics & Government

Federal workers in RTP feeling the bite of the shutdown. If it drags on, others will too.

NC Vacations: Hatteras Island

VIDEO: Experience the untamed environment along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Climb a lighthouse, charter a deep sea fishing trip, or just relax on unspoiled beaches.
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VIDEO: Experience the untamed environment along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Climb a lighthouse, charter a deep sea fishing trip, or just relax on unspoiled beaches.

The U.S. government’s partial shutdown is putting federal employees in North Carolina out of work and is threatening to deplete the money it takes to provide financial assistance to needy families, pollution testing and help for farmers recovering from last year’s devastating storms.

State agencies that depend on federal money say they have enough socked away to get through the next two or three months. But after that North Carolina will see more furloughs and reduced services.

“We’re kind of treading water right now, but we can’t tread water much longer,” David Smith, chief deputy commissioner with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Thursday in a phone interview. “We’re already hearing from farmers who are pretty desperate for relief money.”

Almost two weeks into the budget impasse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ceased most operations, including at the large research center in Research Triangle Park, where an estimated 2,000 employees work. It isn’t known how many of those workers are protected from furloughs. The EPA reports 361 of its 14,000 employees will remain at work in regional offices, which includes 31 who work in the region based in Atlanta, and another 433 at its headquarters in D.C.

Some workers are exempt from furloughs if their jobs are funded with money that is not planned for other uses, or because their positions are deemed critical. There are approximately 72,000 federal employees in North Carolina, according to the state’s commerce agency.

Congress and President Trump are at odds over his insistence the federal budget include money to build a wall across the southern border to keep people from entering the country illegally.

Overflowing trash cans

Travelers in this state might find overflowing trash cans, dirty bathrooms and rough roads on National Park Service lands, such as Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Blue Ridge Parkway visitors center. Most national parks will be opened but unstaffed.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday called for quick action to end the shutdown.

“Each day the federal government shutdown continues, it delays long-term funds needed for Hurricane Florence recovery and threatens to hold up vital services for North Carolina families,” Cooper said in a statement. “President Trump and members of Congress must work together to resolve the shutdown quickly and responsibly.”

The governor said if the shutdown continues, within weeks funding the state manages for poor families, food stamps and children’s nutrition could run out. He said the delay also postpones disaster recovery funding, including block grants for long-term rebuilding. Currently, state Department of Health and Human Services programs are being funded with previous grant balances.

Highlights

Here are highlights of the shutdown’s impact in North Carolina:

Agriculture — Eight employees assigned to a noxious weed eradication program in the state agriculture agency ave been furloughed, based on when their agreements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture went into effect, according to Smith.

Farmers applying for disaster relief funds who have not submitted information to the USDA about what crops they have planted are unable to obtain the necessary form because county farm service agency offices are closed. More than 900 such forms have not yet been submitted from farmers affected by hurricanes Florence and Michael. The state agriculture agency will give them an extra five days once the shutdown ends.

Payments to farmers for livestock indemnity due to the hurricanes are not being made. The state is looking at options for funding that program. It also has to pay for inspectors at meat and poultry processing plants or else those plants would have to be closed. That would trigger a damaging economic ripple throughout the agriculture industry, Smith said.

“We are dominated by federal grants and cooperative agreements in one form or another,” Smith said.

Parks — The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open but unstaffed. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Memorial are closed. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the Blue Ridge Parkway visitors center are not staffed. Details on what along the parkway is open can be found online.

Environmental safety — The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, located in RTP, is open for business. The agency has been funded for the 2019 fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Christine Flowers, and so it has already awarded the grants it makes for Superfund research.

In a workforce of about 700 federal and 350 contract employees, just 12 people were furloughed. They are in a section that deals with Superfund cleanup sites.

Cherokees — While remote from most of the rest of North Carolina, the 28,500 tribal citizens of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and closely tied to the federal government in many ways. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has a contingency plan in place to keep law enforcement intact during the shutdown to ensure public safety and property protection.

The plan identifies essential employees who would continue to work no matter how long it takes Congress to agree on a budget.

N.C. Department of Environmental Quality — The agency reports it has sufficient cash balances to operate federally funded programs for several months. But if the shutdown extends beyond March, the agency could lose up to 75 full-time employees across several divisions, including air quality, waste management and water resources.

The state has stopped sending water samples for testing at the EPA lab in Georgia, which has closed. DEQ is still taking and storing samples in hopes that testing can resume soon.

Crime victims, juvenile justice — The Governor’s Crime Commission learned on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice will stop processing payments until the shutdown ends. That will delay grants for the Violence Against Women Act, the Victims of Crime Act and juvenile justice grants. Dozens of programs for the victims of domestic and sexual violence face uncertainty because of the funding breakdown, McClatchy reported.

Transportation — The state Department of Transportation has avoided furloughs so far. It has 28 full-time, permanent positions that are federally funded, five of which are split between state and federal funding, and four temporary positions. All are based in Wake County. Those employees work in the Governor’s Highway Safety program, public transit, and the Safe Routes to School program.

Information technology — The state Department of Information Technology can use a grant that has sufficient balance to fund current operations. Receipts from other state agencies that use federal funds for IT will get the agency through the next two months, but that could be a problem if the shutdown isn’t resolved by then.

Schools — The state Department of Public Instruction reports no impact on programs it administers with federal funds, as the money currently needed has already been allocated.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed.

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.


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