Post and Courier
September 20, 2014

Back in business, federal agencies reopen after shutdown ends

Posted: 10/17/2013 08:53 a.m.
Updated: 10/17/2013 06:29 p.m.


By Natalie Caula Hauff

Brent Everitt glanced toward the beaming sunlight Thursday morning as the “Spirit of South Carolina” pulled away from the dock in Charleston Harbor on its first trip to Fort Sumter since the government shutdown began on Oct. 1.

Everitt snapped a few photos on his phone as the boat took off. It’s probably something he’s seen hundreds of times, but this particular take-off was special for the park ranger. He got word in the morning from his supervisor that the parks — Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and the Charles Pinckney Historic Site — were back in business after being closed for over two weeks because of the partial federal government shutdown.

The Sullivan’s Island man, who worked through the shutdown at Fort Sumter’s museum building, said it was a relief to open the doors again.

“We want to welcome people to the parks. It’s the reason I became a park ranger,” Everitt said. “So the worst thing was having to turn people away.”

Up against a deadline, Congress passed and sent a waiting President Barack Obama legislation late Wednesday to avoid a threatened national default and to end the shutdown.

The next morning, the first boat to Fort Sumter was already departing with about 65 people on board. Most of them were from an Ohio senior citizens group who were grateful to see the historic site, which they had axed from their itinerary.

“I was happy,” said Rosemary Fawley, the tour’s organizer. “We had kept an eye on the news.”

Inside the fort’s museum, a few people walked through the exhibits, including Linda Summers of St. Louis. “This was our last day here, so we were lucky.”

Sandy Pusey, the park’s facility manager, enthusiastically said her staff was coming back in Thursday morning and they were busy changing the messages on the phone recording.

Since Oct. 1 those recordings at national park offices and other federal agencies informed callers they would be closed due to the shutdown.

The shutdown initially idled about 800,000 workers nationally, but that number dropped to 350,000 after Congress agreed to let furloughed Pentagon employees return to work. Standard & Poor’s estimated the shutdown has taken $24 billion out of the economy.

Military operations

Perhaps the most noticeable local workplace shift during the shutdown came at Joint Base Charleston, where much of the civilian workforce was sent home. At last count there were more than 5,000 civilian employees at the base.

It remained unclear Thursday afternoon when the contractors could return to work. A base spokesman said he was unable to give a definite date at this time.

Contracts will have to be renegotiated to omit funds for services that weren’t provided during the shutdown, said Staff Sgt. William O’Brien.

Base leaders were working with the military command to resume all their operations. Many of the base support functions were in the process of reopening in the afternoon, O’Brien said.

“Unfortunately, some of our force support functions that were down-scaled during the shutdown will remain on hold. Base officials are in contact with Air Mobility Command to ensure restoration occurs in a speedy and orderly manner,” he wrote in an email.

A weekend drill for a group of Air Force reservists already had been canceled due to the shutdown. The 315th Airlift Wing commander, Col. James Fontanella, canceled the monthly drill, which will affect more than 1,400 reservists scheduled to undergo training this weekend.

“After the budget deal was reached, it became too late to turn the training weekend back on. Another change would significantly affect reservists’ civilian work schedules and the local hotel industry that would have a hard time supporting us due to numerous other events happening this weekend,” said Maj. Wayne Capps, the 315th Airlift Wing’s public affairs chief.

The 450 room reservations for those who were supposed to attend the drill would have generated about $66,000 in revenue for local hotels, officials said.

The 2,600-worker Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, one of the region’s biggest federal employers, was barely affected by the shutdown. That’s because the high-tech command on the Charleston Naval Weapons Station is a self-funded organization that doesn’t receive budget allocations. Even so, 35 local interns at SPAWAR were sent home because of the stalemate, said spokesman Tommy Groves.

“They came back last week, and they’re working again,” he said.

Other agencies affected

Operations at the Army Corps of Engineers in Charleston were back to normal by morning. The effects of the shutdown had hit that agency a little later than most. Some regulatory staff members were furloughed starting on Tuesday, and about five support staff members had been furloughed on Wednesday.

“For us it was a short-lived furlough,” said Glenn Jeffries, the chief of corporate communications for the Corps.

But even a few days can make a difference for places such as Folly Beach, according to Mayor Tim Goodwin. The shutdown threatened progress on the beach renourishment project, he said. A contract is expected to be awarded on Nov. 7.

“I was very glad to see that at least they put them back to work for awhile. It was a concern for us,” Goodwin said.

About $5 million in city funds paid to the Corps of Engineers kept the project moving ahead, he said, but it was a day-to-day situation because of the shutdown.

The city is paying 15 percent of the cost of renourishment, and the federal government is paying 85 percent, he said.

The timing of the project matters because it is better to get started on it ahead of the winter storms, he said.

Back to business

The end of the shutdown also means some local real estate deals can be finalized, officials said.

It either trimmed or closed operations at agencies such as the IRS, the Department of Housing & Urban Development, and the Social Security Administration. The federal agencies provide key pieces of information lenders need to process loan applications.

“The limitations on FHA multi-family lending will end, the IRS should begin offering tax transcripts and other supporting paperwork again and any of the federally backed loans that may have been delayed should be cleared to close,” said Meghan Byrnes Weinreich, spokeswoman for the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. “Some may experience minimal delays as the affected agencies play catch-up from being closed for two weeks but all should be back to normal shortly.”

For 73 disabled workers who have federal contract jobs through Goodwill Industries, the shutdown meant they were unable to work at their custodial, mailroom and commissary jobs.

According to Goodwill Industries in North Charleston, most of the workers were able to cover the majority of their lost income by using vacation time, and by working at temporary, lower-paying jobs in Goodwill stores.

Some of the workers returned to their regular jobs when commissaries reopened at Joint Base Charleston and at Shaw Air Force Base. On Thursday, Goodwill was waiting for notification that the remaining workers could return to their jobs.

“Overall, I think our organization weathered the storm,” said Reginald Hughes, vice president for commercial services at Goodwill.

The nonprofit organization will, however, take a financial hit from the work that didn’t get performed under federal contracts during the shutdown, such as custodial work at SPAWAR.

The Charleston County Aviation Authority also felt the effects of the shutdown. Director Paul Campbell said it delayed the posting in the Federal Register of a sales agreement with Boeing for 267 acres owned by the authority near Charleston International Airport. The Federal Aviation Authority requires all land changes be posted in the federal registry before the sale can become official.

Also, the $189 million makeover of the airport terminal required construction crews to move some security equipment, which had to be signed off on by Transportation Security Administration officials.

“That person was on furlough. It could have been a delay in our construction plans if that had gone on,” Campbell said.

Local school districts

The shutdown left some unanswered questions for local schools regarding a major federal grant, according to Audrey Lane, a deputy official at Charleston County School District.

The school district received last year a $23.7 million, five-year Teacher Incentive Fund grant, and the funds will help the district develop a system to evaluate and reward teachers in part on their performance. The district will pilot that system for teachers and administrators in 14 schools this year, and it’s in the midst of working out those plans.

Lane said the district got a message on the first day of the shutdown that its go-to contact at the U.S. Department of Education would not be able to communicate about the federal grant, and they haven’t had contact since then.

It hasn’t caused any major issues, but could have, if the shutdown had persisted, Lane said.

The Berkeley County School District also was affected by the shutdown because the national Office of Head Start, a pre-school program, was not available to provide routine administrative support services and one payment to the district was delayed, according to their superintendent, Dr. Rodney Thompson.

Shutdown politics

President Barack Obama addressed the nation during a Thursday press conference at the White House, thanking the federal workers for their service and welcoming them back.

“The first government shutdown in 17 years is now over,” he said.

But the president also talked about the damage that’s been done due to the “manufactured crisis.”

“The American people are completely fed up with Washington,” he said.

South Carolina’s delegation was split on the deal to reopen government. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham voted for it, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott did not. Graham said the deal is far from great news but does avert disaster.

“To say we as Republicans left a lot on the table would be one of the biggest understatements in American political history,” he said. “We could have done much, much better. Unfortunately, given where we now find ourselves, this agreement was the best Senator (Mitch) McConnell could do. By the time we got to this point, we were playing poker only holding a pair of twos.”

Scott agreed ending the shutdown was a good thing, “however, raising the debt ceiling with absolutely zero off-setting reductions in spending is the poster child for the lack of fiscal foresight that is common place in Washington.”

Scott noted federal auditors have identified billions in duplicate spending and offered up this example: “Last year, we spent $20 million that went to create reality TV shows in India.”

The vote was less nuanced in the House, where all six of South Carolina’s GOP congressmen voted no, while U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., voted for it.

“Going forward, we must get beyond the repeated episodes of partisan brinkmanship that have been so costly to our country,” Clyburn said. “It is my sincere hope that this Congress will learn from this needless, manufactured crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford noted that the bill will add about $500 billion to the national debt while doing nothing to curb long-term spending or reform entitlements.

“I opposed the bill that came before me in the House tonight for one very simple reason: It does nothing to address our national debt or our spending trajectory,” he said. “It doesn’t make progress towards confronting the ballooning deficits that await us around the corner.”

In a statement, state Democratic leaders faulted the GOP lawmakers representing South Carolina who voted against the compromise.

“Scores of Democrats and Republicans lived up to their oaths to protect and defend this great nation — but not the majority of South Carolina’s elected officials. What a disgrace,” said S.C. Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison. “Rather than standing up for South Carolinians, every one of them chose to play tea party politics despite the damage to our families and our economy. It’s time for new leadership for South Carolina.”

Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesman, Doug Mayer, called shutdowns a ridiculous way to do business. “Hopefully Washington will now turn toward cleaning up its horrendous fiscal mess,” he said.

The plan that passed Wednesday extends the funding for federal government operations until Jan. 15. What happens after that is now back in lawmakers’ hands.

Robert Behre, Diette Courrege Casey, Prentiss Findlay, Tyrone Richardson, Brenda Rindge, David Slade, Glenn Smith, Warren Wise and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.