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Heat aid, Head Start vulnerable

Should the federal government shutdown stretch into the coming weeks, it will jeopardize Community Action’s ability to offer Head Start classes and provide fuel assistance to Franklin County households this winter, the anti-poverty agency officials predicted Tuesday.

State funding will allow the agency to continue for at least two weeks, offering its preschool and child care programs for low-income families, said Executive Director Clare Higgins, who is currently in Washington, D.C., at a Head Start conference.

But a lack of federal money will prevent the agency from continuing part-time classes much beyond that point. Some full-day, full-year classrooms will continue but will see most of their additional services (like transportation and health care) stripped down to the bare essentials.

Community Action will be unable to provide oil deliveries if the shutdown stretches into November, said Energy Director Peter Wingate. Staff sent out 5,500 applications to households who enrolled in the program last year (about half as many as they normally do) and don’t have the money to send out any more.

Applications are coming back in from households and staff will be on hand to certify them for most of October — but money will then run out and layoffs will likely occur, said Wingate. The agency usually starts sending out fuel assistance applications to households in October, but just happened to get an early start this year, she said.

The shutdown on Tuesday affected all local and regional offices of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, as well as the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab and the Cronin National Fish Hatchery in Sunderland — most with signs and phone messages advising callers and visitors that they would be reopened when Congress approves a federal budget.

Farm agencies

“You have reached the NRCS State Office in Amherst, Mass.,” said a recording at the Natural Resources Conservation Service facility. “We are unable to take your call at the moment due to the shutdown of the federal government. Please leave us a message with your name, organization and phone number. We will return your call when the federal government reopens.”

At the Greenfield offices of NRCS, and the Farm Service Agency, as well as their counterpart regional offices in Hadley, and elsewhere around the state, staff was allowed four hours to leave phone and e-mail messages advising the public that staff would be furloughed and service would be curtailed until a federal budget is approved.

Without approval of a federal Farm Bill to authorize farm service programs, and without a budget to allow spending, there can be no applications and no payments made by the agency, he said. Whenever a federal deal is reached, the agency’s roughly 29 staff members, including one in the Greenfield office, are prepared to return to work the following day.

The same was true at the USDA Rural Development office, where New England Regional Director Jonathan Healy said that project funding that was already obligated by Rural Development may continue, even though all staff has been furloughed, but if inspections or certification is required, those could be delayed until a budget is restored.

At the same time, Healy said, the agency, which handles $500 million a year, has been reduced in staff to 48 across three states, compared to the 66 who were there when he joined three years ago, and that further cuts could take place if new staffing rules are put in place in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Healy said, “Our doors are closed. They will open whenever the shutdown ends.”

Other agencies are continuing business while hoping for a quick end to the shutdown.

Roseann Martoccia, executive director of Franklin County Home Care Corp., said the nonprofit’s services for the elderly will continue for now — but federally supported nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels and community dining centers could feel the effects of a prolonged shutdown.

Human service agency ServiceNet doesn’t foresee any immediate impact on its services, said spokeswoman Wendy Payson.

Hospitals and schools

The Community Health Center of Franklin County and Baystate Franklin Medical Center will also continue operating as usual.

And in a letter Tuesday morning to public school officials across the state, education Commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote that, “unless the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks, districts should have sufficient grant funding to maintain their current programs for the short term.”

There may, however, be a delay in the state’s ability to process school breakfast and lunch reimbursements, wrote Chester.

Greenfield Community College will not feel any effect, said President Robert Pura.

Since about one-third of the $34 billion state budget comes in the form of federal grants and reimbursements, the impact of a federal shutdown could well be felt by millions of more Massachusetts residents the longer the situation continues, according to Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington.

Kulik, who co-chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, says state officials are now trying to assess how significant Washington’s budget impasse could be.

Medicaid, for example, is 50 percent reimbursed by the federal government, millions of federal research dollars that flow to the University of Massachusetts could be frozen, and 85 to 90 percent of many highway construction projects — such as work currently being done on Interstate 91 in Deerfield — are done with federal dollars.

“There may be money in the pipeline from the last quarter just ended that’s still in the process of being expended, but when that dries up, that could certainly mean that there are people who could not be working,” Kulik said. “If this (impasse) were to continue, there would be a very serious impact. There are a wide variety of things that people generally take for granted that have federal funding. It’s anyone’s guess, and it’s very scary.”

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