By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
Local agencies and residents they serve are beginning to feel the consequences of Capitol Hill’s inability to work out a budget compromise to resolve this week’s federal government shutdown.
Thousands of federal workers are idled and most non-essential government services halted for the first time in nearly two decades after Monday’s deadline to avert the shutdown passed by amid a budget impasse in U.S. Congress. Millions of Americans are unable to get government services ranging from federally backed home loans to supplemental food assistance for children and pregnant women.
The impact of the shutdown seems to be mixed — immediate and far-reaching for some, annoying but minimal for others.
In Cullman, a host of agencies are grappling with how to operate without federal funding, scaling back services and falling back on contingency plans to keep their doors open.
Cullman City’s Head Start program is in jeopardy of closing Tuesday if the federal shutdown is not resolved, City Schools Superintendent Dr. Doreen Griffeth said Wednesday. The program serves about 100 children and employs 20 who may be placed on furlough beginning next Wednesday due to the lack of federal funds. School administrators plan to notify parents today of the pending closure.
Meanwhile, Cullman County’s Head Start programs in Cold Springs, Hanceville, Harmony, Vinemont and Welti will not be affected and will continue normal operations, said Michael Tubbs, executive director of Community Action Partnership of North Alabama which manages the program. The county Head Start programs are on a different fiscal year schedule, which began July 1, so they currently have adequate funding, Tubbs said.
“We’re good as far as we can see, but if this shutdown goes on for a good while, we’re all going to be in trouble, including local and state governments,” Tubbs said.
Cullman’s Social Security Administration field office remains open with limited services. Hearings offices will continue to conduct hearings before an administrative law judge, and Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments to beneficiaries will continue with no change in payment dates. However, the SSA office will not issue new or replacement Social Security cards, replace Medicare cards or issue a proof of income letter.
It will be open to help people apply for benefits, assist people in requesting an appeal, change addresses or direct deposit information, accept reports of death, verify or change citizenship status, replace a lost or missing Social Security payment, issue a critical payment, change a representative payee and process a change in living arrangement or income for SSI recipients only. Online services can be accessed at www.ssa.gov/onlineservices.
On Wednesday, the state’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program received word that it would get $6 million in emergency supplemental funding that should keep benefits intact through October, said State Health Officer Don Williamson.
“Due to the federal government shutdown effective, Oct. 1, 2013, the future of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program is uncertain,” according to a written statement issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health. “The Alabama WIC Program is continuing to issue food instruments. Participants are currently receiving one month of WIC benefits. The Alabama Department of Public Health will continue to reassess the impact to the WIC Program daily based on guidance from the United States Department of Agriculture.”
Those who rely on the assistance through the Cullman County Department of Human Resources — namely TANF welfare payments and SNAP food stamps — should be able to obtain benefits through the end of the month. After that, officials are not sure.
“We’re not going to speculate after October,” said Barry Spear, Alabama DHR public information manager. “We feel comfortable we can get through this month because we have unexpended funds available to use. We don’t know after that.”
The shutdown has forced the Alabama National Guard to cancel its monthly training drills and as well as travel plans. The Cullman armory has also indefinitely postponed a dedication service to unveil the naming of the facility Fort Tony L. Klump originally set for Sunday until further notice. Staff Sgt. James Caudle said the event was planned in coordination with the monthly drill that has now been scrapped due to the shutdown.
About 800,000 federal employees have been sent home — a number greater than the combined U.S. workforces of Target, General Motors, Exxon and Google.
The effects have played out in a variety of ways, from scaled-back operations at federal prosecutors’ offices and the FBI to revoked permits for dozens of weddings at historic sites in Washington. Campers at national parks were given two days to pack up and leave, and some parks were entirely closed to traffic.
In the nation’s capital, fountains were being turned off on the National Mall and the National Zoo closed. Its beloved panda-cam went dark.
The IRS suspended audits for the duration of the shutdown, and call centers were left unmanned. The 12 million people who got six-month extensions must still file their returns by Oct. 15. But the agency will not issue tax refunds until the government resumes normal operations.
The shutdown is the nation’s first in 17 years.
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.