The mayors are watching the clock—most of the time, helplessly—as the federal government’s partial shutdown finishes its fourth week, with consequences slowly mounting for their cities and residents.
Already, essential federal subsidies that help low-income people pay rent have expired, and if the shutdown crawls into a second month—which many think is likely—the impacts to federal food aid recipients could be catastrophic.
Thus far, many cities have been working to provide for their residents where the federal government isn’t.
“Our cities and counties are the safety net, and we’ll continue to have that safety net,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio.
Due to staggering competence, your local government will remain open today.
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) January 9, 2019
But soon, the longer-term impacts of prolonged federal government absence will start to trickle down to cities in far more dramatic ways.
On top of those impacts to their residents, mayors are grappling with halted, slowed, or imperiled federal funds for development, transportation, police, and other projects. “The lack of federal funds will affect public safety, road repair, housing, and other essential services,” Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in a statement.
Less funding for food assistance, escalating demand
In Dayton, Ohio, one of Mayor Whaley’s biggest concerns is food pantries. “In two weeks they won’t have any funding for the storage of food,” she said. While the Department of Agriculture will continue providing food to local food banks in the area, according to the Dayton Daily News, the department won’t be able to shoulder the transportation and storage fees.
A spokesperson for Dayton’s food pantry told the Daily News that storage costs typically run about $14,000 a month. “The community’s in the process of trying to fill that void, but it’s rather expensive,” Whaley said.
But food pantries across the country are bracing for an even bigger crisis. Furloughed workers without pay could mean a sudden and dramatic uptick in customers, straining supply and budgets even more, and if the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) loses funding, pantries’ supplies will dwindle as another rush of people come their way.
According to the Washington Post, USDA will provide SNAP benefits through February by moving up the distribution date to January 20—before its money is set to expire. If the shutdown continues long past that, another creative solution will be required to keep benefits flowing through March.
Counties may foot the bill to keep opioid services running
Local nonprofits rely on federal grant funding to provide support to victims of violence, drug abuse, and more. And the consequences of lapsed funding for some of them can be so dire that cities are anticipating trying to foot the bills themselves.
In Cincinnati, Hamilton County could be forced to step in and provide additional funding to keep anti-opioid centers open should the shutdown extend past 30 days.
“No matter what is debated on the top level, here at the street level it’s us trying to save people’s lives and make our communities better,” Newtown police Chief Tom Synan, who is also co-chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, told WCPO.
This is part and parcel with a common refrain from local community and nonprofit leaders who are grappling with ground-level consequences of a shutdown they have no control over. “Mayors and local government officials don’t get to indulge in the luxury of partisan politics,” said Benjamin.
When the government shut down, grants from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became inaccessible.
These grants are reimbursement-based: Nonprofits spend to support survivors and victims and then seek reimbursement from the government. And the longer the shutdown goes, the more likely they will run out of money waiting for federal reimbursements to start moving again.
“If no one’s there to process the applications or the requests for reimbursements, we are very concerned we won’t get funding,” Amanda Meyers, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center, told the Wichita Eagle. “Without the funding we won’t be able to keep the doors open.”
Across the country, community-based nonprofits are struggling to keep doors open.
“You count on being able to submit that monthly reimbursement request because that’s what you’re making payroll,” North Carolina’s Carousel Center director Amy Feath told WWAY3. The center provides therapy for victims of assault.
The looming threat of home loss
Millions of Americans live in public housing or make ends meet with the help of government-sponsored rent subsidies that help keep them in their homes. As the shutdown churns forward, those renters increasingly face eviction and housing insecurity, as CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported last week.
Renters who receive Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance have seen their monthly payments end, and could face eviction at any point. The public housing operating fund and the housing choice voucher program received funding through February, but should the shutdown extend past that, local housing authorities that help connect low-income renters to stable housing would run out of money.
In response to this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent notices to landlords with federally subsidized tenants asking them to use their reserves rather than evict tenants, says the Washington Post. The Post also reported that the Office of Personnel Management released a letter urging renters to trade chores for rent from their landlords. (OPM later called this a mistake.)
And with so many residents facing issues, mayors and municipalities haven’t been able to figure out how or if they can even help, aside from “encourag(ing) our private-sector partners, our corporate citizens to be understanding,” said Benjamin.
But that doesn’t always work. In D.C., which has the most furloughed workers of any city, landlords were a mixed-bag on whether they would provide extensions or assistance to furloughed tenants. Some said they would “do the right thing” while others said “normal protocol will be followed,” according to a . “Grants are either waiting to be approved or have been approved, but there’s nobody to activate those funds. So agencies are experiencing cash-flow issues around that.”
Some transit agencies will have to tap reserves or take out loans should the shutdown continue.
For example, Moody’s highlights the New Jersey Transit System, for which federal funding covers all of its debt service and 43 percent of its capital improvements. Transit grants from the federal government are usually distributed in the early spring, so for now things are okay. That would change if the shutdown extends close to or past the normal distribution date.
According to the Department of Transportation’s shutdown report, the FTA won’t be able to distribute grant money or reimbursements, which usually help cover transit agencies operating expenses.
The report also says that FTA employees won’t be able to provide “environmental, legal, civil rights, and other reviews essential to advancing projects to the point of obligation,” meaning that new transit project plans will stall until the shutdown ends.
According to NASDAQ, New York’s MTA depends on funding from the federal government to help fund a quarter of its capital-improvement plan, and Los Angeles’ metro-expansion project has had funding interrupted as well.
Meanwhile, officials in Oklahoma announced that they would delay bids on transportation projects worth $137 million until they could be sure about federal funding.
The shutdown is nearing 30 full days, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called on the president to postpone his State of the Union address until the government reopens. But the impasse remains: Congressional Democrats won’t give the president his wall, and the president won’t accept anything less than it.
Municipal and local officials, frustrated and exasperated, are grappling with the results.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a statement last week pillorying the federal government for failing to solve this problem, and more action could be on the way from the nation’s mayors.
“The start of [the U.S. Conference of Mayors convening] is on January 22 in Washington. 250 mayors are gathering there, and prayerfully, this is resolved by then,” said Benjamin. “If it’s not, it will be the top of the agenda.”
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