Shut Down: So What?

Published 5:37 pm Thursday, October 3, 2013

The federal government is currently shut down. But, the earth still turns on its axis. McDonald’s is open. Banks are dispensing cash. There are still places in town to get gas for $2.99 a gallon (as of Thursday morning).

So, has the shutdown made a difference for those living in Buckingham, Cumberland or Prince Edward counties?

Well, yes, no and not yet. Depends on what you need.

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If you’ve found the perfect house and want to apply for a loan from Rural Development to help buy it, you’re going to have to wait.

If your child is in head start or you currently receive WIC, all is clear, for now. The same goes for free and reduced lunches funded by the federal government at area public schools.

If you’re a farmer who is working with the conservation services to install a fence to keep your cows out of a stream, your payment, and help with the project, is currently on hold.

If you want to apply for medical assistance as set forth by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obama care, go for it. But, know, it may take longer to process than originally anticipated.

“We are open for business,” says the Prince Edward Department of Social Services Benefit Program Supervisor Deana Bennett. She told The Herald that the social services office is still taking applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and medical assistance. And by medical assistance, yes, she means the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obama care.

But, although they have taken years to prepare for October 1, the date local social services offices begin taking applications for the Affordable Care Act, the shutdown has slowed them down a bit. Her office’s systems are having issues, because they are now hooked with the federal hub, she told The Herald, “So, we can’t get that information back as readily as they were anticipating on October 1.”

The phones are being answered at the Piedmont Health District, too. “As of right now, we’re still running business as usual,” says Dr. Alexander Samuel, district director. After referring The Herald to a state-level spokesperson, he said he could not provide very many details, adding, “things are very fluid.”

Similarly, the spokesperson, Dr. Marissa Levine, deputy for public health and preparedness at the Virginia Health Department, confirmed that it is business as usual, adding that all health department services are fully operational.

Although the WIC program, which provides supplemental food for pregnant women, new moms and young children, is federally funded, she says the department has found other sources of funding to keep it going for the time being. “If there’s a change, we will communicate that. But, right now, we have enough funding to keep the program open,” she told The Herald.

Head Start is safe for now, too. Carolyn Early, nutrition manager at Community Development Institute, says she just received a memo stating that their funding is secure through the end of November.

The Community Development Institute administers head start in nine counties in central Virginia — including Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward — for a total of 366 preschool students.

December 1 is when a new grant begins. That’s when it might get scary, she told The Herald, if congress drags out the shutdown.

Similarly, while federal school meal programs, such as free and reduced lunch, are not currently impacted, if the shutdown continues for over a month, the consequences could be more severe. “The shutdown could impact funding for the federal school meal programs if it continues into November,” reads an email from the Virginia Department of Education to school superintendents.

For other local offices, it’s not business as usual. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office, located in Prince Edward County, is closed. A sign on the door Wednesday afternoon read, “Due to the Federal Government shutdown, this office is closed. We regret any inconvenience.”

The office housed the Farm Services Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Services and Rural Development. Roughly 16 government employees who worked from that location are furloughed.

The Farm Service Agency administers federal farm programs, such as subsidies for farmers. Right now, Executive Director Jimmy Gantt told The Herald, farmers have just finished harvesting their corn and would usually be coming into the office to make crop reports. His office serves 500-600 farms in Nottoway and Prince Edward counties.

Those interested in a housing loan from rural development or help installing new conservation practices on their land will also face a locked door if they plan to visit the USDA office.

For now, landowners who are working on conservation projects will not be able to receive payments for their projects. And contractors installing those projects will not be able to receive guidance on meeting federal requirements. If a project is not installed properly, conservation services cannot pay on it. However, if the shutdown only continues for a few more days, Resource Conservationist Delbert Southall does not anticipate a major impact.

Closure of federal offices could also bring about some unexpected delays. New Horizons Community Action Partnership, formerly known as Hope Community Services, is in the process of filing an appeal with the Department of Health and Human Services to override the Virginia Department of Social Services’ decision to de-designate the agency as a community action agency. Interim executive director Dr. Henry J. Featherston says New Horizons must submit a report to the federal office by October 9. He believes that office is currently furloughed and he’s not sure how that will affect the agency’s appeal.

There are other, smaller, ways the shutdown has impacted the day-to-day life of citizens. Cumberland High School JROTC students are supposed to visit Fort Pickett, in Blackstone, on October 18, to tackle a leadership reaction course. However, Major Peter Amico told The Herald yesterday, he has been informed the trip may be cancelled if the shutdown continues for too long.

Similarly, Cumberland Planning Director Rachel Falkenstein says a few planning resources and tools are no longer available. However, because she rarely uses them, this won’t have a major impact on her office.

For many in the area, the greatest noticeable impact of a short-term shutdown may be felt this weekend. Those planning to visit Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, take in the fall foliage at Shenandoah National Park or cross the bay to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge will have to rethink their plans.