Press-Republican

October 4, 2013

Local impact small from federal shutdown

By JOE LOTEMPLIO and ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The federal government shutdown does not appear to have had a major impact on the North Country just yet, but some are worried.

“I sincerely hope they come up with a resolution to this before too long because we could be looking at some layoffs if this keeps going,” Bruce Garcia, chief executive officer for the Joint Council For Economic Opportunity in Plattsburgh, said Thursday.

“This could have a significant impact on a lot of people’s lives.”

‘IF IT LINGERS’

Garcia said the shutdown is not affecting any JCEO programs, among them early childhood learning initiative Head Start, because they received an extension on their funding earlier this year that will take their budget through the end of March 2014.

But if the shutdown lingers, it could cause problems, he said.

The JCEO offering he is most worried about is the Community Outreach Program, which is funded by a Community Services Block Grant. Funding is in place now, Garcia said, but it could dwindle fast if the shutdown continues.

The Outreach Program features 11 centers around Clinton County that provide services to the elderly, disabled and low-income families. Food baskets, clothing, assistance in filling out forms for home heating aid and the Christmas Bureau are among the services provided at outreach centers.

“If this goes three or four weeks, it could have an impact on that program,” Garcia said.

SIGNS APOLOGIZE

The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), which provides funding for home heating to those who are income eligible, is not scheduled to start until Nov. 18. If the situation is not settled by then, that funding could be in jeopardy, Garcia said.

“Hopefully, this will be resolved by then, but if not there could be a lot of people with significant problems.”

Not all Head Start programs have the same funding cycle, he added, noting he has heard some beyond the North Country have had to suspend operations.

The shutdown has closed the Internal Revenue Service office in Plattsburgh, as well as Congressman Bill Owens’s office.

Signs on the doors of those offices apologized to visitors for the inconvenience.

WIC STILL HONORED

Clinton County Clerk John Zurlo said that applications for passports were still being taken at his office at the Clinton County Government Center, but there was no word on how long applicants might have to wait to receive their documents.

“We have not been informed of any changes, so it is business as normal here,” he said.

And Thursday, the Clinton County Health Department sent out a notice saying the WIC Program “has been instructed to continue business as usual by the NYS Department of Health. ... Families are encouraged to utilize the program’s services by keeping their appointments and cashing their checks.”

The federal program provides special supplemental nutrition to women, infants and children through checks good for specific foods including baby formula and milk at participating stores.

The benefit checks would still be honored at those vendors, the release said.

‘IT’S OUTRAGEOUS’

Franklin County law enforcement is feeling the federal shutdown, and residents can see the impact with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol vehicles parked along roadways, said District Attorney Derek Champagne.

“People are realizing they are seeing more of them sitting,” he said. “It’s outrageous. They have a set number of miles they can travel per shift.

“In a rural area, when it takes an effort to get somewhere, it is ludicrous,” he said. “There is a certain number of miles they’re allowed, so on an eight-to-10-hour shift, you better not go over the set amount of miles.”

Fewer patrol vehicles means a chance more crime can occur or more time elapse before law-enforcement can respond to an incident, he said.

Champagne said the presence of officers patrolling an area “can be a deterrent, or if you get a call of a suspicious person near the border, and the Border Patrol is near the border, they can get there. 

“The State Police might be 30 or 40 minutes away.”

The DA said U.S. attorneys’ offices are also in a tough spot since they have to decide who takes a furlough and who doesn’t.

“He has to decide who is non-essential,” Champagne said. “Is it the people handling white-collar crime or drug cases? But what really is non-essential for a U.S. attorney?”

MILITARY BENEFITS

The shutdown doesn’t mean SUNY Plattsburgh students won’t receive their loans and Pell grants this year, said Todd Moravec, director of the college’s Student Financial Services.

Federal aid for the current year was funded in last year’s federal budget, he explained. 

Should it continue for an extended period of time, though, it could affect next year’s programs. 

The stalled government, however, does affect military benefits, such as tuition assistance, for active-duty students, Moravec said, as the government won’t make those payments during the shutdown. 

Still, he added, the college would never hold those students accountable for the government funds. 

“We would just wait for the payment,” Moravec said.

The shutdown, he noted, has also made it impossible for students to register for the draft and for the college to confirm whether students have done so, as the website used for such purposes is currently inactive.

WORSE FEAR

But more concerning than the shutdown, Moravec continued, is the debt ceiling, because if that is not raised, it could interfere with the government’s ability to pay its bills and delay the college from drawing down millions in federal aid.

“I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but that’s my worse fear,” he said.

At the beginning of each semester, Moravec noted, SUNY Plattsburgh draws down about $15 million in federal aid that is applied to students’ bills for tuition and fees.

That money, in turn, is used to pay the college’s bills — among them employee salaries.

In addition, Moravec said, SUNY Plattsburgh gives out nearly $8 million in refunds to students each semester that they often use to pay rent and feed themselves at local establishments.

So if that money weren’t available, he noted, “that could impact the local economy a little bit.”

Still, Moravec said, that’s a worst-case scenario.

News Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.