October 2, 2013

Most agencies, aid programs in Maine operating – for now

The state receives federal funds for social services, defense workers, veterans, parks, schools and more.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Postal Service

The U.S. Postal Service is an independent agency with its own stream of funding, so post offices will remain open and mail delivery will continue as usual.

Airports

The Transportation Security Administration and air traffic controllers are continuing to operate.

National Parks and wildlife refuges

All national parks, as well as federal wildlife refuges like the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, are closed.

Amtrak Downeaster

All Amtrak trains are running as usual.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

These programs are considered to be mandatory spending, and benefits will continue to be processed as usual. However, new applicants may experience delays.

Section 8 programs

Rental-assistance programs have enough funding to pay landlords through October.

VA Clinics

Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta and smaller VA outpatient clinics throughout the rest of the state are fully operational.

WIC and SNAP benefits

Food stamp programs are open for now and operating on reserve funds.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

Uncertain funding will put applications for federal heating assistance programs on hold. “Once we find out, we’ll kick into overdrive to get those benefits out,” says Deborah Turcotte of MaineHousing.

Turcotte said the housing authority has no idea what Maine’s share will be in the next year. “Once we find out, we’ll kick into overdrive to get those benefits out,” she said.

She said reports that the authority’s first-time homebuyers program would be closed temporarily were incorrect. That program, which provides no-down-payment home loans to eligible borrowers, has not been affected.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said there will be no immediate impact on the department. The Federal Highway Administration, which provides a large chunk of the department’s budget, is funded through the end of the 2014 federal fiscal year. But if the shutdown persists, his department could run into permitting issues with two federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If that happens, he said, some projects could be delayed or stopped.

EDUCATION

About 97,000 lunches and 43,000 breakfasts are served daily in Maine to students who receive free or reduced-price meals through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Walter Beesley, director of the food services program in the Maine Department of Education, said USDA officials have told the state that schools will continue to be reimbursed, even in an extended shutdown.

However, the funds to support the 10 staff members in Beesley’s office who administer the program in Maine could be cut. The program – including those salaries – is funded with federal dollars.

“When November comes, I’m not sure what will happen,” Beesley said. But he sought to reassure parents that children in the program will likely be protected.

The agency’s most immediate problem, Beesley said, was the fact that the USDA’s website was down, preventing his staff from accessing resources. Visitors to the site found a message saying the website was unavailable “due to the lapse in federal government funding” and directing them to generic pages with information on the shutdown.

Michael Wilson, chief financial officer for Portland schools, said no federally funded programs will be affected immediately, but that could change if the impasse persists. The school district, and many others, receive money from federal grants, but most of that money has already been committed or is exempt from the shutdown.

For instance, special education funding, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding and the Perkins grant that supports career and technical education are approved and funded for the school year.

The USDA said it will continue to fund the school meals program through October.

“Thankfully, there is no immediate impact on our schools,” said Justin Costa, who chairs the Portland school board’s Finance Committee. “In the long term, any economic downturn caused by the shutdown could result in less state aid to our schools and jeopardize important educational programming.”

Although some states have already had to close their Head Start programs, Maine’s Head Start programs are funded through the current school year. The program, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides low-income preschoolers with education and nutrition services.

However, the shutdown is having an impact on some lesser-known school programs.

Fran Seeley, 72, of Portland is one of 125 employees of a federally funded program for schools in Cumberland and York counties. Those “foster grandparents” assist elementary school teachers in the classroom, paying particular attention to children who have advanced needs.

Seeley said she plans to keep going to work until she’s told not to, but her program is set to lose funding by Oct. 15, said Mike Tarpinian, president and CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, a community action agency that serves 20,000 individuals and families in Cumberland County.

RECREATION

Acadia National Park isn’t the only park where visitors are being turned away.

(Continued on page 3)

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