Politics

October 2, 2013

In Augusta, shutdown’s impact already visible

Some Maine offices close or offer limited services. But the effects of a long closure would be much more dire.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Less than 12 hours after Congress plunged the federal government into shutdown, William Coffin, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s director for Maine, had to shutter his city office.

click image to enlarge

Don Register fills out a form Tuesday October 1, 2013 at the Social Security Administration's offices in Augusta. The federal agency has reduced services due to the shut down by is still providing assistance to some. "I think it's crazy," the Augusta resident said of the closure of federal government resources.

Staff Photo by Andy Malloy

click image to enlarge

A paper sign describing the government shutdown hangs on the entrance of the U.S. Geological Service building on Whitten Road in Hallowell, Maine.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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When asked about office morale, he said, “I’m not going to answer that,” with a laugh.

Then he sighed deeply.

The U.S. government went into a partial shutdown Tuesday for the first time in 17 years after Congress missed a deadline to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government temporarily.

An estimated 800,000 workers will go on unpaid leave, and nonessential federal services and programs will be suspended.

In and around Augusta, the shutdown affects federal and many state offices.

Gov. Paul LePage’s office said in a statement Tuesday that while 280 members of the Maine Army National Guard have been furloughed until further notice, the shutdown “will not significantly impact state government.”

Coffin said OSHA had to close by 11 a.m. and won’t reopen until the government is funded. He said it will affect 16 OSHA employees statewide. Everyone but him, he said, will go home unpaid. Coffin said he will work part time during the shutdown, also unpaid.

But the effect is uneven at federal offices around Augusta.

Most business at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus will continue normally. The FBI’s Augusta office was open, while the U.S. Geological Survey’s was closed. The Social Security Administration’s office was open, but service was scaled back.

The FBI’s office on Sewall Street, which covers Kennebec and seven surrounding counties, was open and “not really” affected, said a man who answered the phone there and wouldn’t give his name.

 

At the Social Security office on Civic Center Drive, one of three service windows was open just after 1:30 p.m.

A sign near the entryway listed nine services it was offering, including application for benefits, changing address or direct-deposit information and accepting reports of death, among others.

State offices, most of which work closely with federal regulators and use federal funding, are reporting little in the way of immediate changes because of the shutdown.

LePage’s office said schools, the Maine Department of Labor and the Maine Department of Health & Human Services won’t be affected by a short-term shutdown.

If it drags on, however, there’s more concern.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the shutdown had idled the department’s intermediary with the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

He said that means the permitting process is slowed, especially in high-water project areas where federal guidance is needed.

“We consult with the Army Corps for the best way to approach and carry out this work. Without their presence, that type of project stops,” he wrote in an email.

Talbot wrote that a one-week federal shutdown wouldn’t be “too much of an issue, but a month would have more serious impacts.”

In an email, DHHS spokesman John Martins said there has been “no immediate impact” on department staff or programs it administers; but he said many department employees’ jobs depend on a level of federal funding, and on Tuesday the department was reviewing the potential effect on staff positions.

LePage’s office said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Emergency Management Agency won’t be affected.

As the shutdown pertains to Togus, a U.S Department of Veterans Affairs document says inpatient and outpatient care, along with surgeries, counseling, mental health care, home nursing care, home loan processing and insurance processing will continue.

However, some services won’t. Recruiting and hiring of veteran job applicants will stop until the government is funded. The Board of Veterans Appeals also won’t issue any decisions on claims appeals.

Jim Doherty, a spokesman for the Togus veterans’ health care system, said no employees were affected by the shutdown on the health-care side of Togus, which is considered to be essential.

Staff Photographer Andy Molloy contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@centralmaine.com

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