October 18, 2013

Maine workers, parks are ‘back in business’

But Gov. LePage’s civil emergency edict is still, inexplicably, in effect.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

and Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The barricades were removed at Acadia National Park on Thursday, and scores of furloughed federal employees in Maine returned to their cubicles as the government resumed operations following a 16-day shutdown.

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Visitors to the USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy, line up to walk up the gang plank for a tour in Boston on Thursday. Federal memorials and National Park Service sites opened, and thousands of furloughed federal workers returned to work Thursday after 16 days off the job due to the partial government shutdown.

The Associated Press

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Tom Severance, a property manager for the U.S. General Services Administration, said he was glad to be back on the job Thursday at the U.S. Customs House in Portland. Severance, who lives in Lisbon, oversees more than 30 properties in southern Maine that are owned or leased by the federal government.

Kelley Bouchard photo

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But while the end of the government shutdown eased political tensions in Washington – albeit temporarily – Democrats and union leaders in Maine criticized Republican Gov. Paul LePage for maintaining the “civil emergency” he declared to deal with federally funded state employees affected by the closure.

Most federal employees were told to report for work Thursday, less than 12 hours after Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill to fund agencies through mid-January and avoid a default on the government’s debts.

“We’re open and back in business,” said Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent at Acadia National Park.

Like national parks across the country, Acadia gated off roads into the park, closed campgrounds and halted all public assistance except in response to emergency calls during the shutdown. As of Thursday, the Park Loop Road, Blackwoods campground and almost all other areas of the park were once again accessible to the public.

“Everything is open now that would normally be open at this time of the year,” Bobinchock said. Asked about the closure’s impact on the park during peak weeks for fall foliage, Bobinchock responded: “We haven’t had the opportunity to assess how many visitors may have been turned away.”

Other federal offices were attempting to catch up on 21/2 weeks worth of work.

“We are back ... and ready to pick up where we left off,” said Marilyn Geroux, district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Maine. Geroux’s staff of eight people – who help small businesses acquire loans and provide other assistance – was furloughed during the shutdown.

“We are so glad to be back,” she said. “I am hoping it won’t cause too much of a disruption.”

Likewise, the Veterans Benefits Administration offices at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus in Augusta were back at full-staff Thursday, according to a representative there. While veterans’ health care programs at Togus and across the nation were unaffected by the shutdown because of an exemption, about 30 to 35 staff in the Togus benefits office were furloughed last week. The temporary layoffs meant that veterans were unable to receive in-person assistance from VA staff, although claims processing continued.

Social Security Administration field offices in Maine had scaled back some of the administrative duties during the shutdown, such as replacing Social Security cards and correcting earnings records. A spokesman said field offices were operating at full capacity again Thursday.

National wildlife refuges – such as the Rachel Carson refuge in coastal southern Maine – had also reopened trails and areas popular with some hunters at this time of year.

“So permit holders are welcome to get back to hunting and people who need a permit can contact the refuge office,” said Terri Edwards, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England regional office.

The post-shutdown situation was murkier at the State House, however.

LePage was the only governor in the country to grant himself the power to suspend state laws and regulations as a strategy to deal with the partial shutdown of the federal government. The governor has said that the emergency was declared to help federally-funded state workers laid off during the shutdown obtain unemployment benefits.

LePage had yet to lift the emergency order as of Thursday evening, prompting questions from the Maine State Employees Association and criticism from Maine Democrats.

Approximately 100 of the 2,739 federally-funded state workers were furloughed during the shutdown, with the remaining 2,600-plus facing likely furloughs unless federal dollars began flowing soon to the state. On Thursday many of them were back at work, including 52 employees at the disability claims center in Winthrop. Furloughed workers will receive compensation for the days they were out of work.

(Continued on page 2)

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