Tahlequah Daily Press

October 11, 2013

Shutdown affecting some local residents

By TEDDYE SNELL
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Now in its 11th day, the federal government shutdown is beginning to have an effect on local residents.

According to a recent report by the Associated Press, about 400 state employees - namely in the Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Oklahoma Military Department - will begin furloughs next week if an agreement is not reached in Congress.

Closer to home, the Muskogee Veterans Administration regional office on Monday furloughed 576 employees – 40 percent of its workforce.

An area VA employee, who commented on condition of anonymity, indicated her post has been deemed essential, so she has, thus far, avoided unpaid furlough.

“We will receive our paychecks tomorrow, then will continue working and ‘eventually get paid,’” she said. “There is no guarantee that our next paycheck will be on time, but we are required to work.”

She also pointed out any leave time taken puts the employee on furlough status.

“For example, if we call in sick, we go on furlough for the day, then go back to our working status when we return,” she said. “It’s all very scary to me as a single parent, and I’m trying just to keep a positive outlook and hope it will be resolved soon.”

Tahlequah is home to a good number of nonprofit organizations, many of which receive federal grant funding. The ability of the agencies to “draw down” funding for services is also being affected.

“We do have to draw funds and cannot do so right now,” said Pam Moore, director of the American Indian Resource Center. “Which means we got paid this past pay day, but we’re not sure if we’re going to get paid next time.”

Moore said regardless of the funding situation, they have to complete their jobs, and wishes Congress would do the same.

“They should probably do their jobs like the rest of us,” she said. “We can complete our desk work, but we can’t do our workshops because we can’t draw down funds, meaning we can’t do our real work, which is to provide training and technical assistance to tribal communities.”

Even if the federal situation is remedied soon, Moore said the effect will be felt for weeks to come.

“When we do get to get back out in the field, it will cost more, because we’re unable to make advance travel reservations,” said Moore. “Most people know that the farther out you can make a reservation, the less expensive. It makes operating very expensive for a period of time, even after they go back to work. It will even out later, but we’ll never recoup that money, so it’s costing taxpayers to do this.”

While many of the national parks are shuttered to visitors, state parks, and agencies like the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commissions remain unaffected, so far.

“The shutdown has yet to affect us,” said Cheryl Allen, OSRC administrative manager. “But when we had our environment fair, a number of agencies weren’t able to come, as they office in federal buildings which have been shut down.”

Gina Levesque, program coordinator at the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, is one such state employee whose office is based in a federal site.

“Those of us who cannot work out of the office are maintaining appointments outside the office and doing computer work at home,” said Levesque. “The hours we are not working are being paid by administrative leave. I’ve only had to take one day of administrative leave in two weeks, so that’s good.”

According to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission website, officials have asked employees in closed offices to provide alternative contact information so conservation customers can still obtain some district services. Many of the closed offices have left a voice message providing alternative contact information for district employees.

Tribal nations, including the Cherokee Nation, often rely heavily on federal funding. CN Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the tribe’s finances are secure for the short- to mid-term, thanks to “sound financial stewardship and efficient government spending.”

“While the Cherokee Nation is prepared, many tribes across Indian Country will suffer by losing important services we believe are guaranteed by the United States’ trust obligation,” said Baker. “Our hearts go out to those tribal citizens, and our prayers are with them during this difficult and uncertain time.”

tsnell@tahlequahdailypress.com