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Agencies left in the dark as no end in sight for shutdown

SoVaNow.com / January 09, 2019
Local agencies are scrambling for answers on how to continue their federally funded programs as the partial government shutdown continues for a third week.

With no end in sight to the stalemate between President Trump and Congress, most local agencies that administer federally supported programs say they’ve received no word from Washington on how long they can continue their work. Agency officials worry Southside Virginia residents with the greatest needs will be the hardest hit when money runs out for school lunch programs, senior meals, housing aid and WIC and SNAP food assistance.

Rachel Cohen, communications director for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, noted that White House officials have not fully briefed lawmakers on the expanding consequences of the government shutdown, leading to confusion about what happens as each week goes by.

Democratic lawmakers continue to press for an end to the impasse. In a statement, Warner said, “This unnecessary government shutdown is already hurting federal workers and contractors in Virginia — and it has the potential to hurt even more vulnerable Virginians if it goes on much longer. School lunch, food stamps, and WIC, a nutrition program for babies and pregnant women, are all locally administered programs that quite literally help hard-working Virginians put food on the table, and they rely on federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which remains shut down.”

Freshman 5th District Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Nelson) called the shutdown “cheap political theater” and said he, too, worries about its effect on 5th District constituents. Instead of fighting over a border wall that he said constitutes one-tenth of one percent of the budget, Riggleman said he is spending his first days in Congress developing a solution that works for both sides — one that includes “comprehensive border protection, resources for border patrol, and visa reform,” he said.

Riggleman also recently announced that for the duration of the shutdown, he will be donating his congressional pay to the Drakes Branch Volunteer Fire Department in Charlotte County to help them rebuild after the damage caused by Hurricane Michael.

As of Friday, Gwen Hinzman, director of Lake Country Area Agency on Aging, said her agency has not been contacted by anyone from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington to notify them if funding will be delayed or if they need to cut or curtail services. HHS is only partially impacted by the shutdown because the cabinet department was separately funded through fiscal year 2019 back in September.

LCAAA is responsible for administering transportation services, in-home care, adult day care and nutrition programs for seniors, among others

Andy Piercy, who oversees the local agency’s finances, said LCAAA received its monthly reimbursement from HHS at the end of December and he expects it to receive January funding without delay.

At the Tri-County Community Action Agency, executive director Petrina Carter is not as confident that money for the local Head Start program will not be affected by the shutdown. Head Start funding also comes from Health and Human Services. Nevertheless, she said the agency is prepared in the event there is a delay in receiving federal monies. “We have a line of credit that we can use to sustain our Head Start,” albeit for a limited period, Carter said.

Tri-County bills the federal government two to three times per month for funding to operate the preschool program that serves 181 children in Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. Since the shutdown began, Tri-County has not sought any reimbursement, but Carter said the agency expects a bill will go out in the next week.

Tri-County also administers several other programs, including housing assistance, healthy families and nutrition aid. Federal funding for these programs flows through the state to Tri-County, and Carter said she has been told that Virginia has already received the dollars for these programs through the end of the fiscal year.

“Head Start is different. We apply directly to the federal government for that money,” she said.

Prior to the shutdown, Tri-County received word that its grant request to fund Head Start through June 30 had been approved. Since then, Carter said she received no assurance that her requests for reimbursements would be processed in a timely manner, since roughly a quarter of HHS has been furloughed since the shutdown.

Residents living in HUD-assisted properties also are in limbo, not knowing whether they could face eviction in the event of a protracted shutdown.

The first official notice given to nearly 1,500 HUD-assisted property owners nationwide was not issued until Friday, Jan. 4, more than two weeks into the shutdown. In a letter to property landlords, Lamar Seats, deputy assistant secretary, office of multifamily housing programs, explained that HUD’s funding and spending authority ran out on Dec. 21. In addition, the agency is working with a skeleton staff — about five percent of the 7,500 HUD employees. As a result, he wrote that “most asset management activities must cease for the duration of the shutdown.”

HUD programs that will continue for the next 30 days, according to Seats — assuming previously appropriated money is still available or in instances where life or property are threatened — include payments under Section 8 (low-income), 202 (elderly) and 811 (persons with disabilities), mortgage interest reduction payments (Section 236 agreements), and other Project Rental Assistance Contracts (PRAC). At the end of 30 days, these programs are expected to lapse and would not reopen for the duration of the shutdown. Evictions of housing aid recipients could begin once the payments end.

To offset their losses, owners of properties with FHA-insured mortgages or those who receive 202 or 811 capital advances are encouraged to “submit requests for releases from their reserves to cover funding shortfalls caused by non-payment of monthly rental subsidies.”

Seats also suggested that some monies could be available for emergency repairs related to health and safety, or in the event of “imminent threat to the safety of the residents.” It is not clear to what extent there are dollars available for repairs since the funding would have been previously appropriated.

According to The Washington Post, Congress has not allocated funding for the food stamp program (SNAP) beyond January, and SNAP’s emergency reserves cannot cover more than 64 percent of its obligations due in February.

In a statement released five days into the shutdown, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue confirmed that eligible households would receive monthly SNAP benefits in January, but that other nutrition assistance programs such as WIC would be operational only to the extent that there is available money.

Purdue said he anticipated funding for child nutrition programs — including the school lunch, school breakfast, child and adult care feeding, summer food service and special milk programs — would continue through February.

Now, more than two weeks later, the Post is reporting that USDA officials have not said how they would address a pending funding shortfall, including whether they would prioritize who receives food aid or cut benefits for everyone across the board. USDA is encouraging state and local agencies to continue the WIC program as much as possible using “any [state or local] funding and commodity resources that remain available.”

Calls to the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services to determine how many families would be impacted were not returned.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols confirmed that the county school division has not heard from USDA regarding funding for school breakfasts and lunches. In the meantime, Nichols said he plans to “speak with Robin Moore [food services supervisor] and Christy Pfeffer [director of finance] to put together a plan” should the shutdown continue into February and beyond.

Nearly 60 percent of students in Mecklenburg County Public Schools receive free or reduced-price meals, the cost of which are covered by federal funds.

One of the few local agencies untouched by the shutdown is the US Army Corps of Engineers. Lisa Parker, spokesperson for the USACE Wilmington District, said the agency is unaffected since the Corps is funded through the Department of Defense, which had its budget approved separately. Kerr Lake campgrounds and day use areas that are currently shuttered are closed either for the season or due to high water and debris.

Buffalo Park, Staunton View and Ivy Hill day use areas are all closed for these reasons, said Parker. All other day use areas around Kerr/Buggs Island Lake are open.

Local bankers and real estate agents say the shutdown has had little impact on their business, at least thus far. Mike Rowe, marketing executive with Touchstone Bank in Clarksville, said homebuyers who are paying cash for their homes or who are taking out mortgages through local banks are unlikely to see their closings stalled or delayed. The exception would be for those in need of a letter of map adjustment from FEMA or who need flood certifications.

Anyone hoping to finance a home through what Rowe calls the secondary market — VHA and FHA loans — may have to wait until after the shutdown ends since federal workers who process the paperwork for these loans have been furloughed.

Other essential services and payments such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, VA disability payments, Survivor Benefits Plan payments, and retiree payments will continue despite the shutdown. A full-year funding agreement for the Social Security Administration that was reached in September is one reason that agency is not affected.

Late Monday, the White House reversed years of precedent by ordering the IRS to pay tax refunds during the federal shutdown. Sam Berger, who worked in the general counsel’s office at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Obama administration, told The Washington Post that he sees this practice as a violation of a 2004 law, the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from spending money not authorized by Congress. The IRS is one of several agencies whose funding lapsed at the end of 2018.

Warner summed up the state of events. “Every day it’s clearer and clearer that the Administration failed to plan for the consequences of a shutdown that the President has threatened could go on for ‘years.’ It’s just one more reason that Congress and the President need to allow the government to re-open for business immediately.”

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