Feds’ shutdown impact mixed in Sonoma Valley

While health centers, the Veterans Administration and critical food assistance programs will continue to provide services while the federal government is shutdown, some are unsure how long it can last. Funds are in place for the month of October in many departments, but a prolonged shutdown would change the financial equation.

Take California’s Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, which provides healthy food vouchers to 1.45-million low-income residents at 650 sites in California. Unlike some states, WIC in California is federally funded, but administered and operated by the state, so employees will continue to work during the shutdown at least through October. Because WIC is listed as a “non-essential service” government program, its funding could be threatened should the shutdown persist.

“The California WIC program has funds available to continue to operate normally through October,” California’s WIC website stated. “All efforts will be made to ensure that the women and children enrolled in WIC will continue to receive vouchers for food.”

The same is true for the Veterans Administration, whose website states, “Claims, processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs are anticipated to continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted.”

Valley veteran Jim Poore, who is active with Sonoma County VetConnect, a nonprofit organization that aids veterans with everything from job placement to mental health services, said as far as he’s heard, veterans should not be impacted.

“They fund the VA a year in advance,” Poore said, confirming that he got his VA check on schedule Oct. 1. “The best information I have is that the VA won’t be affected.”

Gary Magnani, post commander of Sonoma’s American Legion, said he hadn’t heard any queries from Valley veterans regarding the shutdown. But he warned that local veterans would make their opinions known should the shutdown persist to the point that it affects veterans’ benefits.

“You don’t mess with veterans’ money, that’s all they have in some cases,” he said. “If they don’t get their money, they’ll start burning buildings, and you can quote me on that.”

But don’t bother calling the VA’s help center to ask questions – no one will be there to answer. The same is true of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has shuttered all of its call centers during the shutdown, as well as its local headquarters in Santa Rosa. However, for anyone who filed for an extension in April, taxes are still due on Oct. 15, and penalties will be assessed to those who file late. Tax refunds, on the other hand, will be delayed until the shutdown is over.

Closure of the IRS will be felt in the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which oversees federal housing loans. Because the IRS reviews portions of loan applications, loan processing may be delayed for the coming weeks. About 15 percent of Americans buying homes utilize FHA’s loan programs.

Sonoma Valley Hospital and the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center will not be affected by the shutdown, officials said. Because 48 percent of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is still functioning as an “essential need,” basic medical programs will continue as usual, including Medicare and Medicaid.

“The majority of our reimbursements are Medicare and Medi-Cal,” said Marc Schwager, a board member at the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center. “The federal funds are Medicare which is not impacted. The Medi-Cal funds come from the state and also are not affected. The rest are private insurance and self-pay. As far as we know, everything is still working as usual.”

However, some health programs have been shut down, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza program, according to HRSA. Just as flu season gets underway, flu vaccines may be harder to come by should the shutdown persist.

Justin Frese, deputy superintendent for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, said public schools would not be affected by the federal shutdown immediately, but that could change if it persists beyond October.

Sonoma’s City Manager, Carol Giovanatto, said the city doesn’t receive any direct funding from the federal government and should not be impacted. “If the federal government were as efficient as this office, they wouldn’t have a shutdown,” she said. She added that tourists would likely be the ones to feel the biggest impact in the Bay Area, as the attractions that depend on federal funds have been closed, including the Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin echoed Giovanatto’s sentiments when she said, “We are not hearing of significant impacts on the county level.” She thinks most county offices can subsist for the coming weeks, but questions what will happen if the shutdown lingers too long.

“People are just furious about what’s going on nationally,” she said. “This affects real people, it’s not just people flying or visiting parks.”

Officials in the financial aid department at Sonoma State University said federal student loans are being processed as normal for the month of October. However, a prolonged shutdown could impact student loans in November.

A wide swath of federal organizations, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration, are at least partially closed down and shuttering certain lines of service. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), will continue to monitor earthquake activity, but may not immediately report it. A statement on its website read, “… the accuracy or timeliness of some earthquake information products, as well as the availability or functionality of some web pages, could be affected by our reduced level of operation.” A similar message can be seen on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, and the organization closed its Santa Rosa office, where it coordinates efforts regarding the Endangered Species Act.

According to 2012 figures, Sonoma County has approximately 1,500 federal employees, many of whom will lose their paychecks as long as the government is shutdown.