Shutdown would mean furloughs, fewer services and closed national parks

 

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

Much of South Florida may not notice that large parts of the federal government shut down early Tuesday, but Washington’s budget stalemate promises to bring a sprawling list of challenges for the region.

Homeless shelters and elder-care agencies are working through cash-flow projections to see how long their reserves will last without ongoing injections of federal aid. Mortgage lenders wonder how they’ll close deals if the IRS can’t verify tax information from borrowers. Tour operators face a loss of businesses over closed federal parks.

“We’ll be able to keep the crew busy for a little while,’’ said Terry Strickland, general manager of the Yankee Freedom III ferry in Key West. The high-speed catamaran makes daily runs to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which was set to close Tuesday for lack of funds. The crew will be assigned maintenance tasks until Tortugas reopens its famous fort and campgrounds.

“It’s not a good turn of events for anyone,’’ he said.

Some of the federal government’s most visible roles in South Florida should continue unabated, even without a fully funded budget, officials said. Social Security checks should arrive as usual, the region’s major airports said federal security and immigration posts will be staffed at normal levels, and the Post Office will function as usual.

Monday agencies were still sorting through the rules for the first federal shutdown since the Clinton administration. The Federal Housing Administration initially planned on halting the issuance of new federally-backed residential mortgages, but by Monday had adopted new guidance that would allow the program to continue with funds independent from the budget stalled by House Republicans.

Still, an extended shut-down could still disrupt the mortgage industry. Mortgage bankers in South Florida on Monday were warning of delays if the IRS won’t provide tax information, which most lenders require to verify income.

“It’s going to cause major delays” said Adam Cohn, of Primary Residential in Fort Lauderdale.

He said his corporate office sent out an email Monday afternoon warning of the tax-information issue, and saying the IRS did not expect to process lender requests during a shutdown. (An IRS spokeswoman could not clarify the situation when contacted Monday afternoon.)

Craig Garcia, vice president of Weston’s Shelter Mortgage, a partner with the Keyes Co. real estate brokerage, said his office also was expecting an IRS log-jam for mortgage approvals.

“There’s probably going to be some people who get through’’ without IRS verification, he said. “But I think there will be lots and lots of people who aren’t going to get [their loans] closed.”

At Jewish Community Services in Miami, President Fred Stock said the charity has enough cash reserves to weather an interruption in federal payments. But he said a sudden end to federal dollars could be a crisis for smaller service providers.

“For folks that don’t have that kind of back-up,’’ he said, “they could really be hurting.”

Cutting off funds to the government will mean the furlough of about 800,000 federal workers nationwide. Federal law allows some government functions to continue without new funding approval by Congress, including agencies performing life-and-death functions, those sustained by fees or otherwise carrying out “mandatory” functions, such as processing benefit checks. The rest must go into hibernation until new funding is enacted into law.

The Department of Transportation, for example, said that all air traffic control services would continue without interruption. Amtrak doesn’t expect disruption of passenger railroad service, either.

Still, nearly a third of the Transportation Department’s workforce is expected to be furloughed -- 18,481 of the agency’s 55,468 employees, according to the department’s 32-page contingency plan. On-call accident investigations, hazardous materials safety inspections and airport planning would continue, but audits, security background checks and employee drug testing would stop.

For the Yankee Freedom ferry, voyages would continue through Wednesday -- mainly to evacuate campers and others who need to leave the island.

In Broward, the tourism bureau planned to steer nature groups to areas outside of the Everglades National Park, including the Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.

But while there may be alternatives, the county’s tourism director worries about the broader impact a shutdown will have on consumers’ travel budgets.

“If they’re not comfortable, they won’t make plans,” said Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re going to stay at home, and they’re going to worry about the economy.”

McClatchy’s Kevin Hall contributed to this report.

Here’s how a shutdown might affect some government services:

•  All Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments to beneficiaries will continue without interruption. Field offices would remain open. New and replacement Social Security cards and proof-of-income letters would not be issued, nor would replacement Medicare cards. The Social Security Administration plans to furlough just over 18,000 workers, but its core services would continue.

•  The Medicare program would continue uninterrupted, but if a shutdown lasts more than a month, reimbursements to doctors and hospitals could be delayed. A shutdown also would not affect the Tuesday launch of the new federally run insurance marketplaces in 30-plus states as part of the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.

•  The Internal Revenue Service would continue its automated tax collection process, but many tax-processing functions would grind to a halt, including tax refund payments. The IRS said only 8,826 out of 94,516 agency employees would be working under a contingency plan that keeps computers running so that electronic returns can continue to be received.

•  Most federal education spending already happened before the start of the 2013-14 school year. Pell Grants and other forms of aid for college students also would be unaffected. But federal Head Start programs that get their funds on Oct. 1 would have to scramble for alternative sources of money or face closure, affecting about 19,000 children, according to the National Head Start Association. Head Start is the federally supported preschool program for low-income children.

•  The U.S. Postal Service doesn’t rely on congressional appropriations for its budget, so post offices nationwide would be open for business as if any other day of business.

•  Most of NASA would be shut temporarily, President Barack Obama said Monday, except for space agency employees providing support to the astronauts orbiting the Earth in the space station.

•  The arts would take a hit with closures of everything from the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and the National Zoo in Washington, to the 13 presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

•  The National Mall, often called the nation’s front lawn, would be the most visible sign of tourist-shock, where the Smithsonian’s marquee museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian would be shuttered. In addition, the National Gallery of Art and its well-known East Wing, not part of the Smithsonian system, also would be closed.

•  Tours of the U.S. Capitol would not be allowed unless conducted by members of Congress, the sergeant at arms said in a statement Monday.

•  The iconic Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is part of the National Park System’s 401 national parks that would also close, including Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and Yellowstone National Park, where guests in hotels and campgrounds would have 48 hours to leave.

This report was supplemented with material from the McClatchy Washingtobn Bureau.

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