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October 4, 2013

Government shutdown taking toll on local non-profits

CULLMAN — Though Cullman isn’t home to many outright federal offices, the U.S. government shutdown is still being felt by plenty of local groups in the area that provide assistance to low-income residents.

Victim Services of Cullman County says it can operate for another two weeks without federal funding before it may have to begin making tough decisions. The organization provides safe shelter and meals for women and children in abusive relationships and households.

“We haven’t received any draw-downs from our grants yet, and if we don’t soon, by next Friday, we’ll be in serious trouble,” said Executive Director Donna Jacobs.

Federal funding administered through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) and Alabama Department of Public Health comprise 62 percent of its annual budget, $217,000 of more than $350,000, Jacobs said.

Last year, Victim Services provided free shelter and three hot meals each day to 100 women and 85 children, totaling more 5,00 nights, and helped another 400 out-of-shelter clients.

“If I have to furlough my employees, I just don’t know,” Jacobs said. “We have a staff of 13 here, and we offer life-saving services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Jacobs is also concerned about the future of the county’s annual supplement emergency food shelter funds. It was awarded $25,000 this year.

Cullman’s Good Samaritan Clinic seems to be experiencing a ripple effect from the shutdown’s impact on the Social Security Administration. The free clinic provides medical care for local uninsured residents. Executive Director Kelly Lindsey said the clinic has not been able to enroll new patients because the Social Security office is not issuing new Social Security cards or proof of income letters which are used to determine eligibility.

“Our hands are tied because we can’t help those patients unless we get that,” she said. “We also work with pharmaceutical companies to get people free medicine, but they won’t do that unless we have that paperwork. It’s impacting us quite a bit now.”

Lindsey worries that those residents who are denied care at the Good Samaritan Clinic will turn to the emergency room for help.

Those who have served in the military could also soon see their federal veterans benefits disappear if a budget resolution is not reached. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA medical centers, clinics and other health services have advance appropriations for 2014 and will remain open.

VA has funds available to ensure claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation programs will continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs will be suspended when funds are exhausted, according to a special statement on the VA’s website.

On the state level, veterans’ benefits will not be affected and veterans and their families will continue to receive the same services as usual, said Robert Horton, public affairs officer with the Alabama Department of Veteran Affairs.

At Redstone Arsenal, virtually all of NASA's approximately 2,400 Huntsville employees will be sent home until the shutdown ends. A handful of NASA controllers will remain on duty to support the International Space Station. More than 15,000 workers were furloughed this summer during the sequestration money shortage, but officials expect fewer than that will go home during the shutdown.

"This is a nearly unprecedented situation and we are doing our best to prepare a plan that will allow us to continue to support our warfighters, our astronauts in space and the worldwide missions that we support," Garrison Command Col. Bill Marks said Monday.

Redstone Arsenal emergency services will continue to operate as usual. Access control gates are expected to continue to operate as normal.  Major Exchange activities will be open during normal operating hours and Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities will continue unaffected. However, the Commissary has closed.

Cullman City Primary and West Elementary along with 21 Cullman County schools are classified as Title 1 schools which means at least 40 percent of their student bodies receive free or reduced lunches that are funded by the federal government. That program should not be immediately affected by the shutdown.

“That funding is already set, but if this thing draws out much longer, it could cause some delay in the distribution of those funds,” said County Superintendent Billy Coleman.

Coleman also noted the joint city-county ROTC program hosted at the career center has not been affected by the shutdown.

When contacted by The Times and asked his response to local groups that could suffer because of the shutdown, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said he plans to donate any pay he receives at this time to charity. He also said he believes the federal healthcare reform could have wide-ranging implications for local businesses.

“I plan to donate to charity any pay received during the federal furlough.  This will be in addition to the normal charitable and religious contributions that I have been blessed to be able to make. I am concerned about federal workers who have been furloughed and want government to resume normal operations,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “I am also concerned about the millions of private sector workers whose jobs and pay are being permanently eroded by Obamacare. And I am concerned about the future that awaits Alabama’s children when America can no longer pay its bills due to surging federal programs we cannot afford. That is why I hope Majority Leader Reid will head to the negotiating table with the House and hammer out an agreement that will protect all American workers who — as labor unions have warned — are losing their pay and health plans as a result of Obamacare.”

Trent Moore contributed to this report.

Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at towens@cullmantimes.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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