By NIKI TURNER
RBC I Despite Rio Blanco County’s distance from Washington, D.C., the partial government shutdown—the longest in U.S. history—affects local residents on many levels.
Federal employees in various departments will miss their second paycheck this week as the longest government shutdown in history stretches into its second month. For the seven full-time employees at the Blanco Ranger District Office of the United States Forest Service, the shutdown puts them in a place of uncertainty and financial insecurity.
“We all missed our first paycheck and will probably miss another this week,” said Blanco Ranger District Ranger Curtis Keetch of the employees currently on furlough. “Thank goodness for Mountain Valley Bank,” he said.
The bank has extended zero-interest, zero-APR loans to furloughed workers. Bank President Tawny Halandras said they have had some interest expressed in the program.
“Mountain Valley Bank is a member of this community and has a vested interest in the well-being of the people who live here. This program is another way we can serve as the local community bank and help our neighbors,” Halandras said via email. The program eliminates document preparation fees and offers no minimum finance charge to federal employees affected by government furloughs in Jackson, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
Having Forest Service employees on furlough—unable to do any government work—affects local businesses dependent on Forest Service permits, such as outfitters and guides, among others.
Keetch said he’s been asked if he’s enjoying his “vacation,” to which his reply is an emphatic, “No, I’m really not.”
Similar to the Forest Service, a shutdown of the BLM’s White River Field Office, which reported 41 permanent employees as of October 2015, impacts other industries, including energy extraction and agriculture. Local BLM director Kent Walter told the HT he was unable to answer questions due to the shutdown.
Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Rector, whose personal business is in oil and gas extraction, said the shutdown of the BLM has had a huge impact on his company, which is currently working in Wyoming.
“It cripples our industry,” he said. “The production side is still running strong, but there’s nobody there to check a pipeline. The BLM has to be involved in a lot of the work we do.”
Safety and environmental regulations on oil and gas drilling require BLM officials to be present for inspections and oversight for everything from drilling to plugging wells. Rector said he has five crews working in Wyoming which have all been shut down. They’re working to transfer oversight from federal to state “to keep them [his crews] working.”
Rector said most of those on his crews have been through this process before and are prepared. They plan ahead for January knowing there could be another shutdown, he said.
It’s not just federal workers feeling the pinch while the lights are out. Local agriculture producers who’ve trusted in access to federal programs are also at risk. USDA payment programs to supplement ranchers searching for affordable hay during drought years, such as RBC saw in 2018, have stopped.
“The BLM is closed. We deal with them. The USDA is closed and we deal with them. We can’t reach people with questions,” said local rancher Michelle Shults. “As upsetting as that is, my head understands that border security is important. But people are so dug in now, how can they negotiate and still save face?”
A longer shutdown will impact some of the most vulnerable RBC residents, as funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comes to a close.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked states to issue February’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits early which has the potential to affect 220,000 Colorado families,” said a press release from the Colorado Department of Public Health.
RBC Human Services Director Barb Bofinger said her department is working to make sure families can receive February benefits early.
“Fortunately, we are a small county so our numbers are not large. Others who are already receiving benefits will receive their February benefits,” Bofinger said via email, adding, “We have been told to continue processing any new application that comes in, just as normal. If they apply late in the month and qualify for benefits, they may not receive them right away but they would be retroactive.”
By NIKI TURNER