Shutdown hits home for area agencies

When will the partial federal government shutdown end – and at what consequence in the meantime?

That’s the big question mark hovering over area agencies and organizations which receive some level of federal funding.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration is creating contingency plans, spokesman Jay Pagni said, because after October, all bets are off if nothing changes.

“We are building contingency plans, that should the shutdown last past the end of the month, what (action) are we going to need to take to ensure those vital health and safety programs continue,” Pagni said.

Medicaid, food stamps and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are some of those vital programs, he said.

He explained there is an enormous complexity with federal funding, and the Corbett administration is going through each department, program and line items to look at federal funding for those entities.

Veterans Affairs medical centers, clinics and other health services have enough advance appropriations to get them through October – but things start to change after that, said Voluntary Service Officer Gail K. Ziegler, Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center.

“In the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted. Due to the shutdown, the Veterans Benefits Administration will not be able to continue overtime for claims processors,” Ziegler said.

Oct. 15 is the day the U.S. Middle District Court system runs out of the fee collections it’s been surviving on since the shutdown, said Chief U.S. Probation Officer Tony Harvilla. After that point, those associated with the system – clerks, probation, pretrial services and federal defenders offices – across the Middle District’s 33 counties, including Lycoming, are subject to the federal Antideficiency Act.

They’ll have to choose who’s an “essential employee” and who’s not.

Since sequestration hit the Middle District’s probation office, they’ve been operating with 55 staff statewide, when there should be 63, Harvilla said. They currently supervise about 1,000 offenders and defendants.

Because of that understaffing and the fact their job is an integral part of community safety, everyone will likely still report to work – but won’t get paid after Oct. 15, he said.

“We definitely want to continue protecting the community,” he said. “… Hopefully the legislature will find a way to make this work.”

The partial shutdown hits home for homeless shelters, as well. Liberty House Expansion, the program to expand the YWCA Northcentral PA’s Liberty House homeless shelter, 815 W. Fourth St., hasn’t received its federal monthly allocation since August amounting to about $40,000, said Accounting Director Kim Ramin.

While no services are affected at this point, if the shutdown is prolonged, other federal funding sources for YWCA programs may likely be affected – especially since over half of its operating budget of around $700,000 relies on federal funding, Ramin said.

Along with Liberty House and its expansion, programs include Liberty Options which is housing for female victims of domestic violence, and a comprehensive shelter for victims of many types of violence, he said.

Saving Grace Homeless Shelter, 324 Campbell St., may need something akin to its namesake. Operated by American Rescue Workers and funded in part by Lycoming County United Way, it hasn’t received its Homeless Assistance Program (HAP) funds since July. The funds were already delayed, but the partial shutdown has made the situation even worse, said Co-Commanding Officer Col. Dawn Astin.

None of the programs or employees have been affected, but the HAP funds assist those in danger of becoming homeless, so it directly hits the community, she said.

“Most Americans today are living one paycheck away from (homelessness). If any of us gets ill, then we’re in danger there, too,” Astin said.

The 14-day emergency shelter opened Feb. 14, 2011, and those they served doubled in one year, serving 450 people last year, 100 of which were children. Thursday, out of 24 beds, 15 were used.

The Pennsylvania WIC program uses federal funds to operate, and state offices are currently open and providing services – also to the end of October, said Aimee Tysarczyk, press secretary and director of communications, state Department of Health.

“We can’t put a specific date around when any adjustments will have to be made, but if the federal government shutdown continues into November, we’re going to have to make some tough choices,” Tysarczyk said.

They’re working with local WIC agencies and the ULDA to create a contingency plan.

In Pennsylvania, STEP Inc. and all its 32 programs, including Head Start, are in “good shape across the board,” said Terry Roller, STEP president and CEO. STEP in this state received its federal allocation before the shutdown, although that’s not the case in some states.

Hope Enterprises hasn’t seen any shortages in funding yet, said Vice President Joel Weaver. If anything does happen, they have lines of credit they can tap into, he said. Their programs range from educational to group homes.