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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thousands would be affected locally by shutdown

Staff Writer
Latest by ralphinga 5 years 28 weeks ago

A federal shutdown might not stop essential services such as mail delivery or national defense, but it likely will have an effect on thousands of local federal employees.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management advised employees Tuesday that if a federal appropriations bill or further continuing resolution wasn't approved by 12:01 a.m. Saturday, employees will be placed in temporary nonduty, nonpay status.

Others in "excepted" essential positions -- such as national security -- will continue to work, and be paid once a new appropriation or continuing resolution is passed.

The impact is likely to be felt in Augusta-Richmond County, where roughly 10 percent of the civilian labor force -- 8,941 workers -- are federal employees.

Many more work for businesses that contract with the federal government to provide services at Fort Gordon or Savannah River Site.

Ralph Angelo, the president of the Augusta chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, recalled the shutdowns in 1995, which occurred while he was employed with the Department of Veterans Affairs and lasted several weeks.

"The first thing the National Park Service does is close the Washington Monument," Angelo said. "Nothing's worse than a group of angry tourists who can't get to the Washington Monument."

A shutdown now could close another national park -- Fort Sumter -- which is supposed to observe the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War on Tuesday.

Angelo speculated that Democrats and Republicans would work through the weekend to ensure the shutdown, if it occurs, is brief.

"Will it go on for 30 days? Never," he said.

But the Georgia Department of Labor is developing contingency plans to assist laid-off federal civilian workers. About 102,400 Georgians work for the federal government, including 43,000 with the Department of Defense, Labor spokesman Sam Hall said.

Workers already receiving benefits would continue to receive them, and the labor department has considered bringing additional personnel to staff its career centers if the need arises, Hall said.

Because the state doesn't have documentation of federal wages, laid-off workers would have to bring proof of federal employment and income and check the department's Web site for updates, Hall said.

At Fort Gordon, more than 15,000 active-duty personnel would continue to work but would not be paid for their time until the shutdown ends.

Base spokesman Buz Yarnell referred questions to the Office of Personnel Management Web site and said he might make a statement available later.

At Savannah River Site, there are more than 400 federal Department of Energy workers and nearly 13,000 contract personnel, all of whom are paid through the federal budgeting process.

"If there's no funding, it will impact everything at the site," DOE spokesman Jim Giusti said. "We're looking at contingency plans right now."

If a shutdown occurs, all SRS federal and contract employees will report to work Monday unless directed otherwise by management, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a memo provided by Giusti.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates two hospital campuses in Augusta, is not expected to be affected by the shutdown. Patient appointments will not be canceled or delayed, although some services, such as the answering of consumer inquiries, hiring and training and fraud investigations might be suspended, the department said in a statement.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Thurmond Lake, is awaiting word of how operations at the lake might be affected. Though the corps wouldn't interrupt operation of J. Strom Thurmond Dam, which forms the lake, some public activity areas, such as campgrounds, might be closed.

"I know there are people planning to camp next week that really want to know," said Billy Birdwell, the public affairs specialist for the corps' Savannah District office.

Taxpayers will not see the April 18 deadline to file their federal income taxes extended, and the processing of electronic returns will not be interrupted. But refunds paid to taxpayers who file paper returns likely would be delayed, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman said.

Local agencies, such as the CSRA Area Agency on Aging, receive about 60 percent of their funds from the federal government by way of the Georgia Department of Human Services.

A short shutdown likely would have little effect on the agency's monthly provision of 10,134 meals and other services, such as in-home personal care, although a longer interruption might, Assistant Director Mack Shealy said.

"The state provides the funds to us, so it would be a matter of how long it would impact the state getting its funding," Shealy said.

The area's elected congressmen posted videos on YouTube of their remarks in Congress about the budget impasse and potential for a shutdown.

Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., said Democrats wanted "to shut down the federal government for their own political purposes."

Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., offered, "We can cater to political extremes, or we can work together to resolve pressing issues."