Sigh of relief

Published 8:23 am Thursday, October 24, 2013

WINTON – A long-term federal government shutdown could have a large negative impact here in Hertford County.

From Oct. 1-17, the United States federal government entered a shutdown that curtailed most routine operations after Congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014, or a continuing resolution for the interim authorization of appropriations for fiscal year 2014. Regular government operations resumed Oct. 17 after an interim appropriations bill was signed into law.

At the Oct. 21 Hertford County Board of Commissioner’s meeting, Adonica Hampton, Social Services Director, filled in the Commissioners and the public about how the federal shutdown could have and did effect her department.

“I have good news today,” Hampton said. “The good news is that the federal government is open. For a couple of weeks Social Services staff and many other citizens of Hertford County and nationwide were holding our breath.”

She went on to detail the state notices her office received over the past two weeks that were a direct result of the federal shutdown.

“Beginning around October 3rd and October 4th, we began receiving notices that no additional funds were available for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), Child Day Care (CDC), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs (LIHEAP),” she said. “Most of our funding at Social Services is federal money. So this was anticipated to be a huge impact for us.  The state recommended reduction in services, reduction in purchases, reduction in travel, as well as staff furloughs.  The state began furloughing state employees.”

She continued, “The next notice we received was reminding local Social Service agencies that we have a statutory responsibility to protect the health of children and vulnerable adults.  The notice we received after that was about adult services and how funding was limited and not available with regard to adult services.  This would have a services and staffing reduction impact.  Then we received notice that non-Smart Start subsidized childcare funds were no longer available after September 30th.  That would have impacted the county to the tune of $67,000.

“We received also around the 10th another notice about TANF and specifically Work First, SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) which is food stamps, refugee cash, children’s services such as permanency planning, family reunification,” she added.  “So those TANF funds stretch multiple programs.  Again with those reductions it would have meant reduction in services and staff.”

Hampton talked about another notice, this one stating that the November SNAP benefits would not be issued.

“The impact of that cannot really be computed, especially so abruptly, for the number of citizens here in Hertford County that would have been impacted,” Hampton noted. “On October 14th we received notice that the state looked at its childcare budget so that potential $67,000 impact they were able to send us an allocation that would have covered October….that was good news.

“Then, three days later, we received information about the government reopening,” Hampton said. “Also SNAP benefits were going to be issued. And everything was back on go so to speak, at least until January 15th of 2014.  The state started bringing in the staff that they furloughed back.  The good news is that I am not before you talking about county dollars.”

Hampton walked the Board step by step about how she and her department reacted to the state notices.

“We immediately canceled staff that was attending a conference…put new hires on hold,” she stated. “As soon as we received notice about the Childcare subsidy, which affected 281 children and 30 providers, we sent suspension/termination notices and now we have sent them new notices that their services will continue.  That alone would have again impacted 281 children, parents who are working and going to school, as well as the business and lively hood of childcare providers.

She continued, “We began our plan of determining staffing and staffing levels and started reassigning staff to other duties. This change would have affected our social workers drastically. Everything about Work First shut down.  We went ahead and ended the employment of our temporary and part time staff to ensure the full time permanent benefits and salaries continued. Toward the end of the week, October 14th and 17th, we sent letters to those families of the 281 children that their childcare would continue. There was no disruption of service. That’s how our last two weeks has been.  The good news now is that we are all breathing again.”

Commissioner Johnnie Farmer commented on SNAP benefits, saying, “If food stamps weren’t put back into play, that would cause Social Services to have to find somewhere to feed these folks.”

Hampton responded, “SNAP is not only about the feeding.  It’s about the economics of the local community.  Communities such as ours with approximately ¼ of individuals receiving SNAP, that’s economics for our grocery stores.  And, Washington is really looking at the SNAP program.”

Hampton said they are bracing themselves and preparing for another possible federal government shutdown in January of 2014.

“We will continue to monitor our service levels our service needs and staffing taking into consideration the current fiscal situation, the fact that we so heavily at Social Services depend on federal dollars and how something so abrupt could be a huge county cost.  We will continue to breathe until January when hopefully we won’t have to stop breathing again.  We are going to take that into consideration for all the decisions we make from now til then,” Hampton said.

CountyManager Loria Williams applauded Hampton and her staff for all their hard work during the federal shutdown.

“We need to be prepared as leaders to recognize and realize moving forward that we are in a season of change as it relates to these programs,” Williams stressed. “They are not going to look the same way, so internally we have to make changes.

“Even though someone may question, why send temporary staff home,” Williams added. ‘The reason for that is to make certain our full time staff is able to code to those federal programs that will reimburse. It’s about utilizing your resources in a way that continues to serve us but also is financially prudent and frugal. This is where Ms. Hampton should be commended on some of the changes she made anticipating not having these dollars to bring in on the revenue side.  I still think come January, we shouldn’t even exhale. We don’t know what things are going to look like then. They will look different, maybe not as drastic, but different. We are going to have to be prepared to be as fluid as the situation is and it’s still pretty fluid.”

Commissioner Farmer added a final comment to end the meeting, “I’m glad the government shutdown is over with.  We are looking at January to see if it happens again but I sure hope not.  We need to get back to business and do the business of our county and take care of our people.”