Press-Republican

October 17, 2013

Relief ready as shutdown solution seemed likely

By DENISE A. RAYMO AND SUZANNE MOORE, News Editor
Press-Republican

---- — MALONE — Wednesday, as rumblings grew about a possible federal-shutdown solution, Chastity Miller thought about the furloughed federal employees she knows. 

“I really hope (the Senate and House) come to a decision,” the director of the Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation Office said about the votes expected perhaps as soon as Wednesday night.

Miller’s office is co-located in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) building in Malone, and when the three federal workers there were furloughed — without pay — on Oct. 1, the whole facility shut down.

So Soil and Water was forced to find new temporary digs for the duration.

Clinton County saw a similar scenario, though Miller said more federal workers were sidelined there, maybe 10 or so.

“They’re at home ... and not getting paid,” she said of USDA employees in both counties.

QUICK MOVES

Miller said she and her staff had little time to vacate the USDA building, where Soil and Water is given space rent-free.

“We had two hours to get the things we thought we would need for a few days and left. We didn’t think it would go on this long,” she said.

“We’re still getting paid, but we had to find someplace else to work,” she said.

They found that location at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in the County Courthouse in Malone.

“We were kicked out in three hours,” said Nate Grue, district technician for Clinton County Soil and Water. “At first, we were working from home.”

But as of Wednesday, they had planned to set up shop in at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office next door to their regular space at the USDA, located at 6064 Route 22 in Plattsburgh.

Since there was no way to get the office’s phone messages or email, Grue said he planned to buy a pre-paid cellphone and provide that number to farmers through a sign on the office door for those who need to get in touch.

STAND-UP SERVICE

It’s been a time of upheaval, Miller said, trying to serve clients as best they can.

Tuesdays are water-sample days in Franklin County, when those who need water testing drop off their containers and pick up empty bottles for their next sample.

Since the shutdown, Miller and her staff have stood outside their closed offices from 7:30 to 9 a.m. to collect samples from their regular service users.

She said 10 to 15 people routinely need their water tested, and another three to five people a day drop by the office to ask questions or get help with many of the other district services.

But it has been tough to get the word out to the public that the water collections and other business cannot be conducted at the regular office and must be done from a new site.

“We didn’t even get the chance to change our voice mail,” she said, meaning anyone who calls is getting little information beyond a recording to say the USDA office building is closed until further notice.

GRANT DEADLINE

And what’s worse, Miller said, is that some farmers hoping to make their businesses more energy efficient and cheaper to operate might be too late to apply for grant funds.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program under the Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and other agriculture producers up to 10 years of assistance to plan and carry out conservation projects to improve soil, water, plant life, animal life, air quality and energy conservation on the farm.

Signups for the program began at the end of September; the deadline passed on Wednesday. But with no office open to supply the applications or offer help to the applicant, farmers may not get any of the assistance offered, Miller said.

She said 35 to 40 people had expressed interest in applying. 

PROJECTS STALLED

Grue said about 30 people had signed up with his office for the Incentive Program, and there was another concern in addition to the fact that federal websites were closed down, too.

“There are farmers who have projects that are three to five years in the process, and now that they are finished with their crops, they can work on them,” he said.

“But with the shutdown, the government workers were told to go home, so they aren’t working on the projects.”

Grue was pleased to report a deadline for a State Department of Environmental Conservation grant program for farmers, also affected by the federal gridlock, was extended to December.

And Miller felt the Incentive Program grant deadline would be extended, though she couldn’t guess when that decision might be made.

CO-LOCATION DOWNSIDE

Wednesday, she was in Oneonta, attending a New York State Association of Conservation Districts session, and much of the discussion centered on the federal shutdown, she said.

The New York State Association of Conservation Districts session included state Agriculture and Markets staff but, conspicuous by their absence, federal employees who had been furloughed, she noted.

Miller said about half of the Soil and Water Districts in New York state share space with USDA but the rest have their own.

In light of the disruption this October, she said, “we talked to the districts who are not co-located about the advantages of not being co-located.”

Should the shutdown be over, Miller said, it likely wouldn’t be back to business as usual immediately.

“I won’t know until I hear from my USDA partners,” she said. “It could be 24 hours — I don’t know.”

Email Denise A. Raymo:draymo@pressrepublican.com