State News

Federal shutdown effects ripple across NC

Posted October 1, 2013 12:57 p.m. EDT
Updated October 1, 2013 6:28 p.m. EDT

— From Fort Bragg to Research Triangle Park, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Outer Banks, North Carolina quickly felt the squeeze Tuesday of the federal government's partial shutdown during a budget impasse.

Hundreds of civilian workers on Fort Bragg were told to go home at noon. While military personnel are considered essential for national security and will remain on duty, about half of the post's 14,500 civilian employees were furloughed.

The remaining Fort Bragg civilian workers perform "life, health and safety functions," spokesman Tom McCollum said, citing first responders, physicians and workers directly involved in troop readiness. Defense contractors, he said, won't be affected.

Womack Army Medical Center will remain open, but elective medical procedures will be limited. All Fort Bragg schools will operate as usual. The VA Medical Centers in Fayetteville and Durham will continue to provide inpatient and outpatient care and dental care, but some of the VA's call centers will be closed.

Camp Lejeune also shut down its non-essential operations and sent many of its civilian employees home.

Tiffany Lawson, an employment readiness specialist at Fort Bragg, called the furlough "ridiculous," noting that she had to take six days off without pay in recent months because of automatic federal budget cuts, known as the sequester.

"We still have not recovered from (that), and then to be hit with this," said Lawson, a mother of four. "It's worse because you didn't know it was coming."

Jay Steele, president of the federal employees union at Fort Bragg, said employees had several months notice with the sequester.

"This time around, there was not a 30-day formal notice process or even three months. This was pretty quick," Steele said.

Col. Jeffery Sanborn, garrison commander at Fort Bragg, said most service cutbacks won't be noticed by the general public.

"There is no way around this," Sanborn said in a statement. "Everyone will be affected by this furlough. We will do everything we can to ensure our units, soldiers, their families, our civilian workforce and retirees are supported to the best of our abilities."

Lawson disagrees with the idea that the public won't notice any change.

"When I went to work this morning, you know, people are coming expecting to get services," she said. "They don't care or don't understand that there's a government shutdown. They want what they want when they want it."

In RTP, most of the 2,000 workers and contractors at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency left the complex of research labs and offices – the largest EPA facility outside of Washington, D.C. – at noon and won't return until the budget battle on Capitol Hill is resolved.

The EPA facility handles research in fields ranging from pollution to exposure to chemicals to Department of Homeland Security projects, and officials at area universities expressed concern that the shutdown could ripple through their EPA-related research as well.

RTI International officials were trying to assess the impact of the shutdown on their operations. RTI handles numerous federal grants for research.

Gov. Pat McCrory said his staff also was trying to get a handle on the effects of the shutdown, noting that the state Department of Health and Human Services would get pinched the most because it works on projects that are either fully or partially paid for with federal dollars. The agency furloughed 337 workers Tuesday afternoon.

The Division of Employment Security and the Department of Public Safety also would be affected, McCrory said.

"We have two major goals," McCrory told the Council of State. "We've got to make sure that functions that are critical remain open, and yet, at the same time, we have to make sure we aren't spending money the state doesn't have."

If the shutdown lasts more than a week or two, food assistance to needy families also could be in trouble, officials said.

Some items not affected by the shutdown: The Postal Service, which doesn't rely on government appropriations, will operate on a normal schedule. Postal officials said passport applications also won't be delayed.

In the western part of the state, October is one of the busiest months for the Blue Ridge Parkway, as tourists travel along the scenic roadway to see the fall foliage. But the shutdown has closed visitor centers and other staffed facilities, meaning travelers should consider how they plan to do their viewing.

The parkway remains open – the fall colors will peak in the next two weeks – but Tom Hardy, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, is worried that some people will think the roadway is shut down.

"You know how bad news is, and unfortunately, there are going to be some people who think the parkway is closed and gated. That is a negative," he said.

That could hurt businesses that depend on tourism. Many visitors stay in motels and bed-and-breakfast inns and shop in communities near the parkway.

Tuesday was the first day of the popular fall fishing season on the North Carolina coast, but the National Park Service locked all gates that provide anglers a way to drive onto the beach along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

"It is unfortunate," said Cyndy Holda, spokeswoman for the park service's Outer Banks Group. "Our weather has been wonderful this year: Warm and sunny and good. So, the timing is not good for our fall fishermen at all."

The Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island lighthouses are closed, as is the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk.

Holda said all staffers reported to work Tuesday morning to put messages on their phones or emails saying they will be out of the office because of the federal government shutdown. A few employees will remain on the job, but public facilities will remain closed.

"We don't have staff to run them because we can't pay them. ... Beach access will be closed for all the off-road vehicle ramps, and there is no public access to the beaches today," she said.