Federal government shutdown wreaks havoc on local lives

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SAXTONS RIVER — Will Scarlett is set to graduate from the Maine Maritime Academy this spring, and start a career as a ship's engineer or deck officer, whether it is working on an oil tanker or oil rigs on the other side of the world or working for a U.S. Navy civilian subcontractor.

Scarlett, 21, of Saxtons River, was all ready to take his Coast Guard engineer or deck officer exam from Jan. 3-7, when the partial federal government shutdown cancelled those plans.

Without the licensing exam, Scarlett's four-year-degree really can't get him a job.

"It's really all-important," he said Tuesday, as he worked during his school break at Sheila Patinkin's Wagyu beef operation on Pleasant Valley Road.

"It's a really big disappointment," the 2015 graduate of Bellows Falls Union High School said.

Scarlett said the word is that the Coast Guard exam, which he's been studying for for weeks, including over Christmas break, is now slated for the spring break, and he hopes he doesn't have to pay a second fee for the exam. Without the Coast Guard engineering license, potential employers at the maritime academy's job fairs wouldn't even talk to him.

Scarlett's plight is just one example of how the partial shutdown, which is entering its third week, is playing havoc with people's lives, and town business across southern Vermont.

National Forest

For Vermonters and visitors alike, the Green Mountain National Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is the most prominent federal presence in the region.

According to the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the majority of GMNF's roughly 40 employees are furloughed and are not being paid, while those who are required to work are working without pay.

While trails and recreational opportunities are open to the public, there's no one on duty to plow out parking lots, take out the trash, guide visitors, monitor sign-in books, or staff the trails, Leahy's office said.

"All of the services provided by the Forest Service, the park rangers, are there for a very important reason. Public safety is a primary purpose of all of that, so it's a great concern not only to Senator Leahy but everybody who understands the impact of this Trump shutdown," said David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy.

The partial shutdown, which entered its 19th day on Wednesday, has forced federal agencies to stop issuing paychecks for hundreds of thousands of government employees. With President Donald Trump refusing to sign a government spending bill unless Congress funds his proposed $5.7 billion Mexican border wall, government services largely have been limited to the most pressing, such as Transportation Security Administration workers providing security at airports without pay.

Federal offices

In Bennington, while town operations have not been directly affected by the shutdown, some of the town's information-gathering has been affected, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.

The town has attempted to contact the USDA to learn about borrowing eligibility and rates related to the proposed purchase of a ladder truck for the Bennington Fire Department, "and unfortunately, their offices are closed," Hurd said. That's stalled the board's decision on whether to ask town meeting voters to authorize a bond for replacing the nearly 22-year-old ladder truck, at an estimated cost of as much as $1.2 million.

At Harlow's Farm in Westminster, one of the state's largest organic vegetable farms, the shutdown has created headaches for its end-of-year tax work. Evan Harlow, who runs the farm along with his father Paul Harlow and Cory Walker, said Social Security offices haven't been open to answer questions about the end-of-the-year payroll questions. Harlow and other farmers said the shutdown so far hasn't created any problems applying for government programs, since the deadlines for crop insurance applications isn't until March.

The government shutdown, which has affected local Environmental Protection Agency offices, as well as the Department of Agriculture, is complicating the long-anticipated clean up of the Robertson Paper Co. mill in downtown Bellows Falls.

Gary Fox, Rockingham's development director, said the recent archaeological work done on the site, which is located on the banks of the Connecticut River and near a known Native American site, had to be reviewed by EPA experts, along with others in state government. With EPA regional offices in Boston closed, the review can't take place.

"We were sample trenching to identify areas on The Island of the likelihood of finding indigenous people's artifacts, both inside and outside the building," said Fox, who is shepherding the demolition and clean up of the old paper mill.

The archaeological work started on Dec. 12, a scant two weeks before funding for the federal agencies dried up.

In addition, Fox said, the closure of the USDA's Rural Development business grant program has put the town's effort to get funding to help subsidize his position also on hold, just as the town is formulating its 2019-2020 budget.

Fox also said the town was also applying for a recent Department of the Interior historic preservation grant applications, as soon as the federal agency reopens.

"But those areas are now dead in the water, right now," said Fox.

Some wastewater projects in other small Vermont towns have stopped receiving federal payments during the shutdown, but Bennington receives its wastewater project funding from state agencies, Hurd said.

Sue Andrews, the executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, says that while she has not seen much "up front and personal impact," she has heard multiple people discuss their concerns about receiving their tax refunds.

Leahy, in a speech delivered before the Senate last week, said with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers and ranchers need information immediately on how the law will affect their operations, "but no one is in the office or staffing the phones to answer those questions or sign up producers for new programs."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154. Christie Wisniewski and Tiffany Tan of the Bennington Banner contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.


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