Kansas finds USDA doors closed, too

10/3/2013

By AMY BICKEL

By AMY BICKEL

Special to The Telegram

The gates are up at Fort Larned, signaling the old Santa Fe Trail historical site is officially closed to visitors.

Meanwhile, signs are posted at every Farm Service Agency office in the state, notifying farmers they won't be open until Congress restores funding to programs and agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Across Kansas, other federal agencies are feeling the effects of the government's shutdown, which began shortly after midnight Monday, impacting services that many Kansans take for granted.

Congress could not reach a budget deal by the midnight deadline. Funding for the Affordable Care Act is the main contention among lawmakers.

At the Social Security Administration office on 30th Avenue, a sign on the door said some services were still being offered, although constrained. An official there referred questions to the regional communications office.

An employee at USDA Service Center in South Hutchinson answered a knock on the locked door Tuesday morning, saying he and other staff had four hours to shut the office down — a process more difficult than the last stop in government 17 years ago because of the automated systems.

A woman at the state FSA office in Manhattan also was helping complete a massive shutdown of computers. She noted all USDA websites were shut down.

"We have a lapse of appropriations," she said. "We are in here for only four hours to do shutdown proceedings."

She noted October Conservation Reserve Program payments could be delayed because of the shutdown.

An email sent to State FSA Director Adrian Polansky was returned with an automatic message, saying, "I am on furlough without access to email due to the lapse of federal government funding."

Jim Cross, public affairs specialist for Kansas U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom's office, was just one of the employees furloughed at noon Tuesday in the department. He was deemed an unessential employee, along with several civil attorneys.

He said the federal staff was divided into essential and nonessential, although not evenly. Essential staff, like criminal prosecutors, is still working.

Meanwhile, city- and state-funded services like police departments and district courts are not directly affected by the shutdown.

Cross said it was difficult to say what the impact of the shutdown would be at the state office because no one knows how long it will last and a few civil attorneys remain working to try to keep the department from falling too far behind.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County is also among the nation's national parks that closed due to the lack of appropriations, as are the Cimarron National Grassland in far western Kansas and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Kansas.

District Ranger Lance Brown said that though the grassland office is closed, folks can still visit the Morton County acreage.

At Fort Larned National Historic Site, staff was finalizing the fort's shutdown Tuesday morning. Chief Ranger George Elmore said there are 16 employees and all but he and one maintenance man are on furlough.

"Everyone signed a furlough notice this morning," he said, adding he and the other employee will provide security and emergency services to the fort during the shutdown.

However, he said, he cannot conduct official government business, which includes answering emails.

The fort will reopen when funding is restored. Elmore said employees must stay close to home so they can return to work at given notice, he said.

Staff warned visitors with fort-related reservations over the next 10 days that their plans could be canceled. Elmore said he is hoping operations will restart in time for the fort's candlelight program Oct. 12. Nearly 250 people already have registered for the event, although Elmore can't take any more reservations until the office reopens.

Already the fort is missing out on the 50 to 80 visitors a day — especially on these beautiful fall days, he said.

That means a loss in revenue. Fort Larned visitors also spend about $1.4 million a year in the communities within 60 miles of the historic site.

"It's just gorgeous out," he said. "You hate to inconvenience the people who are paying the bill."

Head Start programs depend on federal grant money. In preparation for a government shutdown, Washington's Office of Head Start emailed notices Friday to all of its grantees, including Reno County Head Start and Hutchinson USD 308, relaying the potential impact.

Without passage of an appropriations act, the national office cannot provide administrative support services but will maintain its payment management system to continue processing grant drawdown requests.

Head Start programs awarded money prior to the government shutdown can continue drawing funds. However, those with restrictive terms and conditions — or if a request triggers one of the payment management system edit checks — funds won't be able for withdrawal, the email states.

The shutdown could also delay the grant application process for Head Start programs.

Rick Kraus, USD 308 human resources director, said the local school district has cash reserves available when funding crises occur, such as in the past when the state of Kansas has been late with its payments to public education.

So far, there has been no immediate impact on the local Head Start programs, which serve children up to 5 years old — 213 enrolled in Head Start and 96 in Early Head Start — in multiple sites across Reno County, Kraus said.

"We have cash reserves and, if necessary, we'll call upon those to keep the doors open," he said. "It's critical the Head Start and Early Head Start families continue to receive services.

"The national organization did send out an email warning this was a possibility. We're just kind of playing it by ear right now."

Nutritional support for low-income women and their children also could be in trouble if a shutdown resolution isn't immediate, said Reno County's Women, Infant and Children dietitian Heather Peterson.

"There is a good chance we could be affected, but we won't be affected immediately," she said.

She said most states have a reserve and the Reno County program has enough to cover two weeks of operations that would help cover operations and honor food checks.

"With any luck, it won't go beyond that," she said of the shutdown.

In Reno County, WIC serves more than 1,700 participants each month, Peterson said. Statewide, according to 2009 numbers, the program has more than 75,000 enrolled.

Farmers frustrated

Logan County farmer Tim Peterson, who was planting wheat Tuesday morning, said the government shutdown means more uncertainty in farm country.

He said those marketing crops and livestock already experienced a few issues. For instance, no USDA staff putting out livestock market reports already has caused market confusion.

"There is a lack of information for a farmer regarding marketing — especially in the livestock sector," he said. "And crop reports are being delayed."

"There is that fear, uncertainty and that undoubtedly creeps into the markets and makes everyone nervous — commodities, credit markets — everyone starts getting anxious," Peterson said. "Anytime you have a situation like this, it is worrisome."

And in farming, he said, there already is enough uncertainty. That includes the federal farm bill, which also expired at midnight Tuesday morning.

"Farmers are in the fields right now planting wheat and don't know what the (farm bill) programs will be," said Warren Parker, the co-communications director at Kansas Farm Bureau. "Farmers need to know what the programs are going to be so they can make planting decisions. But they are out planting wheat right now without much to go on."

The farm bill, however, which could revert back to 1949 law if not finalized soon, has been overshadowed by the budget, Parker said. He didn't expect any farm law decisions to be made until the bigger issue was settled.

Compromise, however, like the days of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole when the last shutdown occurred, seem long gone.

"We're frustrated, he said, then later added, "It's a mess, it certainly is."

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