October 2, 2013

At Augusta-area offices, federal shutdown having mixed impact

OSHA, Geological Survey offices closed; VA and FBI mostly normal as state transportation official says project permitting could be delayed.

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 today at the Social Security Administration's offices in Augusta. The federal agency has reduced services because of the shutdown by is still providing assistance to some. "I think it's crazy," the Augusta resident said of the closure of federal government offices.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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.

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 at midnight for the first time in 17 years after Congress missed a deadline to pass a continuing resolution to fund government temporarily.

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

In and around Augusta, the shutdown affects federal and many state offices, and in some cases, the effect is just beginning to be realized.

Gov. Paul LePage's office said in a statement today 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 it won't re-open 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.

Other Augusta-area federal offices were shuttered, including the U.S. Geological Survey on Whitten Road in Augusta.

A sign on the door there said employees were prohibited from working, "including returning phone calls and emails," until the government is funded.

At the Social Security office on Civic Center Drive, just 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.

"For instance, we have had a lot of rain this season and there is high water within some of our project sites," he wrote in an email. "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."

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 today 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.

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