Shutdown causing a few hiccups in the valley

The Capitol and Washington Monument are seen at dawn as the partial government shutdown lurches into a third week with President Donald Trump standing firm in his border wall funding demands, in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. After no weekend breakthrough to end a prolonged shutdown, newly empowered House Democrats are planning to step up pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers to reopen the government. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The locks and dams are still being tended, but no one is looking after the forest. Money is still available for housing subsidies and food stamps, but no one can close on a USDA-financed mortgage.

Airports are still operating, and the mail continues to move.

The federal government shutdown that began Dec. 21 when Congress and the administration failed to agree on a continuing resolution to fund government services and activities has had a hodgepodge effect on the Marietta area and the Mid-Ohio Valley.

One impact is the difficulty in determining the impact: No information is available from federal agencies that have been temporarily closed. The shutdown has particularly affected the operations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for an enormous range of activities, from food inspections to oil and gas leases on federal lands. The USDA operates the Forest Service, which oversees the Wayne National Forest. The Times was unable to contact anyone with the Forest Service – the website, the emails and the phone numbers in the Athens district all had variations on the message, “leave us your number and we’ll contact you when the funding dispute has been resolved.”

A statement from the USDA on its website offered a detailed list of things the service will and will not do during the shutdown. It said most food inspection services will continue in January, as will Forest Service law enforcement, emergency and natural disaster programs. Farm Service county agencies are closed, recreation sites are closed, no new timber sales will be conducted and most administrative functions will be suspended.

The Wayne National Forest will be closed, the USDA said, but the public will still have access to recreation areas, although they won’t be staffed and facilities, such as toilets, will be closed.

The USDA also provides funding for several food programs, including SNAP and WIC, but those programs are funded through at least the end of January, local agency heads said.

Flite Freimann, executive director of the Washington County office of Ohio Jobs and Family Services, said the state sought the maximum allocation for federal programs it administers before the shutdown occurred Dec. 21.

“The state, as it has in the past, requests as much money as it can in advance,” he said. With the Farm Bill having passed earlier that month, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps) was funded, as was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

“Is there some date out there when we would start being affected? At least another 30 days,” he said. “Right now it’s not even on our radar. For TANF, it has full funding but it’s tied into (Congressional) reauthorizations, but the state has its full allocation to get through the quarter.”

Medicaid, he said, is funded through the full year.

Washington-Morgan Community Action Executive Director David Brightbill said the main federal program his agency looks after is subsidized housing,

“Much of what we do is already appropriated for fiscal year 2019, although the two departments we work with, Housing and Urban Development and the USDA, are shut down,” he said. “Through the HUD voucher program, we deliver about $100,000 a month in rental assistance. We got our cash for January, but I don’t know about February.”

The agency also delivers services for the Women, Infants and Children program of the USDA, but the program is actually used by the Ohio Department of Health.

“We haven’t seen anything indicating a funding shortage or interruption,” he said. “But as for the housing voucher program, if they don’t solve it before too long, it could be a problem for everybody, the landlords who pay mortgages and the tenants who pay rent.”

The shutdown already has affected home ownership aspirations for some.

Ron Tomasch, who operates Polaris Mortgage in Marietta, said all authorizations for USDA rural loans have been stopped. The program offers zero-down mortgages and other incentives for prospective homeowners who want to buy properties in small cities and rural areas.

“There’s no closing on those loans during the shutdown, there’s nobody to authorize them,” he said.

Federal Housing Authority loans – which offer new homeowners low down-payment options – are being processed, Tomasch said, but only if the applications pass the automated system. Any applications that need human intervention for approval, such as those in which numbers such as addresses don’t match records, will have to wait until the federal government gets moving again. The same situation applies to VA loans, he said – if the application won’t go through the automated system, as sometimes happens with an applicant whose service goes back 10 years or more, the applicant can’t close and will have to wait.

Federal government employees who are furloughed or working without pay have another obstacle, he said. They can’t close on a home purchase.

“I do have a loan in the works for a federal employee, but he can’t get access to his current pay records,” Tomasch said. “This will affect people who can’t provide verification of income and employment, and it affects other loan types for anyone who works for those agencies. I have one of those. He’s working overtime, not getting paid, and now he can’t close on his home.”

Other federal operations in the Mid-Ohio Valley have not been affected. The Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport is fully staffed, a spokeswoman said. Employees of the TSA and air traffic controllers are considered essential personnel and were not furloughed, although they are working without pay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has a field office in Marietta, also was not affected, spokesman Brian Maka of the Huntington Division said Monday. The corps is funded as part of the military, which received its full allocation for fiscal year 2019.

The shutdown has not affected mail delivery because the U.S. Postal Service is independently funded.

Tom Perry, vice president for communication and brand management at Marietta College, said he knows of no international students affected by delays in processing visas or passports, nor any students impacted with regard to federal government student loan or grant processing.

Ren’ee Rector, Marietta office manager for Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, said she has heard no direct concerns from local constituents.

The most recent county-by-county breakdown of federal workers in Ohio, from 2008, showed 98 employees, a third of whom worked for the USDA. The remainder worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, Veterans Affairs and Social Security.