Clark County federal workers brace for possibility of government shutdown

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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photoA U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vehicle drives north on Main Avenue in Ridgefield on Friday, passing under a sign advertising the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge's Bird Fest event next weekend.

(/The Columbian)

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Whether the U.S. government will partially shut down Tuesday is still anyone's guess, but federal workers in Clark County are preparing for the worst.

At the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, part of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, officials were busy Friday making sure they had everything lined up in case they need to close their gates. The refuge's annual Bird Fest event takes place next weekend, but if a government shutdown lasts more than a week, the refuge will need to go with Plan B. That includes moving its bird-watching activities elsewhere and postponing one of its most popular attractions, the sandhill crane tour.

"Bird-watching on the refuge is different than it is off the refuge," the site's deputy project leader, Randal Hill, said. He added that Bird Fest is a chance for the refuge to raise money and show the public the role it plays in protecting wildlife. School field trips and volunteer events at the refuge also would be cancelled during a shutdown.

The last time Congress brought the nation close to a government shutdown, in 2011, Hill recalled, "We wasted a huge amount of time just going through the preparation process for a potential shutdown." Now it's happening all over again, he said.

The refuge is just one example of the various ways a looming shutdown is inconveniencing agencies in Clark County and the state. As officials who oversee health programs, social services and parks brace for the impact, many say the negative effects on their agencies would depend upon how long a shutdown lasts.

The same holds true for the economy. Steve Lurch, executive director and chief economist at the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, said if Congress doesn't pass a spending bill on time, and if it can't raise the nation's debt limit by mid-October, "we know that will have a big impact on consumer confidence and on the economy, and that's certainly a risk we're watching."

Lurch, briefing reporters earlier this month on the latest state revenue projections, added: "We're more than a little concerned about what's going on in the other Washington."

Unemployment benefits could be in jeopardy, said Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the state Employment Security Department. Last month, about 102,000 people statewide claimed unemployment benefits, and roughly 3,000 to 4,000 of them were from Clark County, she said.

"Every shutdown has some similarities and some differences," Hutchison said. "We conceivably can be affected. We're not sure yet, and we're asking a lot of questions."

Before past government shutdowns, Congress gave its unemployment benefits program a cash advance so benefits could continue during the shutdown, but there's no guarantee that would happen this time, Hutchison said. Because the nation is nearing its debt limit for making payments on its obligations, providing a cash advance for unemployment benefits could be especially tricky, she added. The U.S. is expected to reach its debt limit by Oct. 17.

Many services wouldn't stop

Not all federal services would end if the U.S. government temporarily shuts down Tuesday. Much of the federal government's spending is mandated by law and not up to Congress to determine. It's the nation's discretionary spending that must be approved by Congress.

Likewise, some federal workers are considered essential during a government shutdown. By law, prison guards, emergency responders, soldiers, postal workers, members of Congress and air traffic controllers would all continue to work. However, they wouldn't get a paycheck until the budget is approved.

The rest of the federal employees couldn't go to work during the shutdown, and Congress would need to decide later whether those employees should get back pay for their forced time off.

Jessica Klement, of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, estimated earlier this year that 3,300 active federal employees work in Clark County. It's unknown how many of them serve in essential roles, but nationwide about 60 percent of all federal employees would still go to work during a shutdown while the other 40 percent would face furloughs.

Klement added that the mood among federal workers remains glum, with many thinking, "Here we go again. First it's a three-year pay freeze, then furloughs, now there's going to be a government shutdown with maybe a chance of back pay."

Health services

A federal government shutdown also could affect the level of services provided by Clark County Public Health.

Federal funding makes up about 20 percent of the health department's budget. The department budget for the 2013-14 biennium is about $24 million, nearly $5 million is from the federal government.

Should the federal funding cease, health officials will be forced to prioritize services, said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer.

"Our main goal is to protect the safety of people who live in Clark County so that's going to have our highest priority," Melnick said.

Federal funding supports a variety of programs at the health department, including food safety, clean drinking water, emergency preparedness, communicable diseases, HIV case management, chronic disease prevention, maternal and child health, immunizations and oral health, Melnick said.

Without the federal dollars, those services would be scaled back until funding is restored, Melnick said, meaning the department would be operating at a "diminished capacity."

National parks

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and the Pearson Air Museum would close during a government shutdown, according to the National Park Service. The museum has had an average of 1,700 visitors per month since it opened in late February under the park service's control.

Visitor facilities at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument also would likely be shuttered during a government shutdown, Sharon Steriti, spokeswoman at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said Friday.

Housing, hunger

Officials with several social services programs said they could take a substantial hit if a shutdown drags on.

Andy Silver, executive director for the Council for the Homeless, said if the shutdown is lengthy, as much as $1.2 million in federal money that gets doled out to a variety of local nonprofits who help the homeless — Share, Second Step Housing, Columbia River Mental Health and the Vancouver Housing Authority in addition to the council itself — could be in jeopardy.

The result, he said, could be nonprofits and service providers who don't know whether they will be reimbursed for the ongoing services their clients need. It would wreak havoc with their ability to plan and move forward, he said.

If there's a shutdown, the Vancouver Housing Authority and its clients and partners could be OK for the month, according to Executive Director Roy Johnson. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was due to wire its October payment of approximately $2 million on Friday, Johnson said earlier in the day. That $2 million covers VHA's chief program: Section 8 housing vouchers that are spent on private rentals in the private market.

There are 5,675 people in 2,520 households receiving those vouchers through VHA, federal program policy manager David Overbay said.

Johnson said if the Section 8 money is delayed or curtailed, VHA has reserves to keep people in their units for a month. But it couldn't go on for much longer. After that, tenants would have to come up with an average of $500 a month per unit to make up the difference, and "that's a lot to make up for a household that is low income," Johnson said.

Federally subsidized housing units for senior citizens, such as the Columbia House and Van Vista, would not evict residents during a shutdown, but contingency plans would have to be made.

"With it being our property of course we'll keep people in place," Johnson said, "but we'll have to find a way to make adjustments internally. We still have maintenance requirements and it would be unwise of us not to continue to do the service we need with our own units. Otherwise we're begging for a bigger problem later."

Alan Hamilton, executive director of the Clark County Food Bank, said he hasn't heard a thing about potential impacts to his agency and its partners. He said he has more pressing worries -- mainly the House of Representatives' recent vote to cut $40 billion from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- otherwise known as food stamps.

Even if that cut is mitigated in conference with the Senate, it's expected that overall SNAP benefits will shrink or disappear for many hungry people, he said.

"That will certainly have a longer and more damaging impact on the hungry in our community," he said.

Local municipalities

Officials with local governments and school districts said they don't expect to be impacted, as long as the shutdown doesn't drag on longer than those in the past. The federal government's most recent shutdown lasted three weeks in December 1995 and January 1996.

For the city of Vancouver, "if a federal government shutdown does occur, we anticipate it being short, perhaps a matter of a few days or weeks," Lloyd Tyler, the city's chief financial officer, said. "The area of impact to the city would be primarily from federal grants that we receive directly or through state-administered programs. During that relatively short time frame, the city would be able to effectively manage its cash flow where it wouldn't be an issue."

Social Security benefits and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements aren't expected to be impacted by the federal government shutdown, as long as the shut down doesn't carry on for more than a month. Doctor visits for veterans aren't expected to be impacted, but the Veterans Benefits Administration might not be able to process some benefits, the Washington Post reports.

Columbian staff writers Scott Hewitt, Marissa Harshman, Stephanie Rice, Tom Vogt and Sue Vorenberg contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com