Some agencies feel shutdown’s impact

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal The Social Security Administration branch in Tupelo is operating on limited hours and offering limited services during the government shutdown.

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal
The Social Security Administration branch in Tupelo is operating on limited hours and offering limited services during the government shutdown.

By Patsy R. Brumfield and Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Federal government services, such as courts and Social Security offices, have begun to feel the pinch of the week-old partial shutdown mandated when Congress failed to pass a new budget.

But at least one group – 1,400 military technicians who work for the Mississippi National Guard – will return to work from furloughs today. Another 700 Guard employees in the state remain on furlough.

North Mississippi’s federal court employees continue working without pay until Congress resolves the situation.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills on Monday said some 90 employees will be expected to work until the shutdown ends.

“We will continue to hear criminal cases and most civil cases,” he said.

But government attorneys in civil cases, such as Social Security appeals, have begun to ask for delays.

That slowdown comes as U.S. Attorney’s offices are directed by the Department of Justice to “curtail or postpone” civil litigation as much as possible without compromising “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” according to a DOJ memo.

The only federal agency which appears to be shut is the Internal Revenue Service. Regardless, people still must pay taxes owed and file scheduled reports, a recorded message says.

The IRS office in Tupelo – the regional location – is closed “due to the budget situation” and will not re-open until directed.

Some federal agencies have limited services and others still open are classified as “essential.”

The FBI based in Oxford is “deemed essential,” said Agent Scotty Peters, so he and his colleagues are on the job. “We’re still working,” he said Monday. “We just may not get paid.”

Saturday, the U.S. House voted to pay furloughed employees. The measure still requires approval by the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama.

Checks of other agencies show:

• U.S. Attorney’s Office, Oxford – Open so far

• U.S. District Court, Oxford, Aberdeen and Greenville – Open

• Social Security Administration, Saddle Creek Drive, Tupelo – Limited services, limited hours

• U.S. Probation Service, Tupelo – Open as part of “essential” services

• Natchez Trace Parkway campgrounds, restrooms and other facilities have been closed since last week.

Social Security recipients continue to receive benefits, but the local office has limited services because of the shutdown, a voice recording states. The office is still open weekdays, although hours were limited months ago.

Online, the public can research estimated benefits, receive an SS statement, and apply for benefits and a few more services.

Nutrition programs

Through the end of October, nutrition programs aiding families in need will keep operating without any congressional action. The Mississippi Department of Health will be able to use funds remaining from the past fiscal year to keep providing food for pregnant women, small children and nursing mothers through the WIC program, which is funded through the USDA.

Likewise, the SNAP program, commonly known as food stamps, which is administered through the Mississippi Department of Human Services, will be able to provide benefits in October.

However if the shutdown continues, it isn’t clear what will happen in November.

“We understand that states may be concerned about future operations and whether November benefits will be paid,” said Southeastern Regional Food and Nutrition Services Director for the USDA Peggy Fouts.

Military

The Mississippi National Guard recalled on Monday almost 1,400 military technicians who had been furloughed since the government shutdown began on Oct. 1.

Those workers will return to work today as the result of a weekend announcement by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to recall about 350,000 furloughed civilian workers throughout the country. That’s because of a broad interpretation of the “Pay Our Military Act,” signed into law on Sept. 30, shortly before the shutdown began.

The act ensures uniformed members of the military will continue to be paid, but also applies to “employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.” Hagel determined that applied to most of the Pentagon’s furloughed employees.

In Mississippi, only about a half dozen military technicians will not fall under that language, said Lt. Col. Tim Powell, spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard. That will leave about 700 Mississippi National Guard employees furloughed he said, with most of those being state employees that are paid with federal dollars.

Head Start

The only Mississippi Head Start program that was closed by the government shutdown will reopen this morning, thanks to a private donation.

The Five County Child Development Program was one of seven programs in six states to benefit from a $10 million gift from philanthropists Laura and John Arnold on Monday. The program serves about 900 children in Simpson, Lawrence, Jefferson Davis and Covington counties. It had been closed since last Tuesday.

Mississippi has 19 different Head Start programs, which serve about 30,000 at-risk children, ages 0 to 5. Funding cycles determine when programs would be impacted by the shutdown.

The Five County Development Program began its fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Lee County’s Head Start programs belong to Mississippi Action for Progress, Inc., whose grant program runs through the end of November, said Charlene Priester, in-house counsel for MAP.

The association serves more than 5,000 children in 25 counties, including 10 Northeast Mississippi counties.

“We know if it ends before (Nov. 30), then we ought to be able to continue,” Priester said. “But if it goes beyond that, we are in a dire situation.”

The program soon will notify its parents that the shutdown could impact programs, Priester said. It is currently determining cuts it may make to save money, she said.

Public schools

The impact of the shutdown on the state’s public schools has been minimal thus far.

Both the Lee County and Tupelo School Districts had already received their preliminary allocations of federal funding, the federal programs directors of each district said on Monday. Both still await a final allocation that could add an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars.

Lee County’s Casey Dye said the district is able to cover all of its salaries, but has had to delay some technology purchases and teacher training that would be funded by federal dollars they normally would have received by now.

“It is frustrating, there are things out there we know with the coming of Common Core, we thought we would be able to take care of some of that, but now we are in a holding pattern until we get the final amount,” he said.

Tupelo’s Anna Guntharp said the district still will be able to operate all of the programs planned for federal dollars, including the Early Childhood Education Center, although planning is more difficult. Immediate effects are limited, she said, and are primarily related to communication since the federal Office of Student Achievement and School Accountability, which administers federally-funded programs, is closed during the shutdown.

Meanwhile, school meals have not been affected, and schools still expect to receive their full reimbursement from the federal government for those meals.

patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com, chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

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Daily Journal staff writer Michaela Gibson Morris contributed to this story.