North Dakotans feel pinch of shutdown

2013-10-01T15:58:00Z North Dakotans feel pinch of shutdownBy NICK SMITH and BRIAN GEHRING | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., continued their budget battle Tuesday hundreds of federal employees in North Dakota began to feel the impacts of the first federal government shutdown in 17 years.

The North Dakota federal employees are among the approximately 800,000 across the nation to be furloughed while Congress resolves its budget impasse involving President Barack Obama’s federal health-care law.

At midnight federal agencies were given the direction to begin shutting down due to a lack of appropriations. It triggered the first government shutdown since 1995-96.

Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk said the National Guard had sent 40 percent of its full-time staff home Tuesday. He said this amounts to about 500 out of about 1,260 people.

“We went through every single employee. We determined which of those employees were essential,” Sprynczynatyk said.

A town hall meeting with staff from the Bismarck-Mandan area was held Tuesday morning with remaining staff joining in by teleconference.

“The mood was very somber. Perhaps some were angry but if they were they hid it well,” Sprynczynatyk said. “It’s very disappointing to say the least. It takes a heavy toll on morale.”

Sprynczynatyk said the hour-long meeting was spent updating staff on the situation, and answering questions.

He said the Guard is still capable of responding to natural disasters in the state because they would utilize state funds for such responses.

The issue of receiving back pay came up during the meeting. Sprynczynatyk said he’s unsure if staff will receive back pay. He said it’s up to what Congress decides as they resolve the situation in Washington.

Excepted employees working during a shutdown will receive back pay when Congress passes a new appropriations bill. Furloughed employees are only able to receive back pay if Congress specifically authorizes it for them.

“Lives are literally disrupted because the paychecks stop coming,” Sprynczynatyk said.

Tim Purdon, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, said half of his 43 staff spread between offices in Fargo and Bismarck were furloughed Tuesday. Most of the furloughed staff are legal support staff and paralegals, as required by Department of Justice guidelines in the event of a shutdown.

Purdon said the U.S. Attorney’s office is engaged in important fights such as addressing crime on reservations as well as keeping organized drug trafficking from gaining a foothold in the western oil patch.

“At half-staffing it’s like trying to do it with one hand tied behind our back,” Purdon said.

Purdon said Tuesday’s furloughs are a “devastating” blow to staff morale. Purdon declined to speculate on the impact to the office’s workload but said it will impact their ability to provide efficient service to the public.

“It doesn’t get better if it goes longer,” Purdon said.

Meg Schwartz, acting superintendent at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, spent Tuesday morning writing 40 furlough notices for park workers — including one for herself.

With the federal government shutdown that began at midnight, outdoor recreation areas like national parks, federal wildlife refuges and the state’s two federal fish hatcheries closed.

Schwartz said at Theodore Roosevelt, the shutdown affects virtually all visitor services. Even the park’s service’s website is not in service.

She said the visitor centers at both the north and south units are closed for now and the Painted Woods Canyon rest area along Interstate 94 in western North Dakota is closed.

She said Tuesday morning the North Dakota Department of Transportation “flipped” the signs along I-94 advertising the popular stop, notifying the traveling public the rest area is closed.

Schwartz said there were a few campers in the park’s north unit who were given 48 hours to leave.

She said entrances to the park are gated and signed and patrols and other services are suspended.

In the south unit, East River Road remains open because it is a public road she said, but the Scenic Loop and picnic area are closed.

The park’s backcountry areas can be accessed via the Maah Daah Hey Trail, but Schwartz cautioned there would be no help coming in the event someone needed assistance.

“People will be on their own,” Schwartz said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district which covers North Dakota, South Dakota Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming, said corps-operated campgrounds and day-use parks will be closed.

Corps properties leased to partner agencies and concessionaires will remain open, but cannot be supported by the corps while the shutdown is in place, according to a release.

The public should check on the status of campgrounds and other areas beforehand.

Information regarding closures and affected areas will be posted at corps-operated campgrounds and day use areas. Maintenance and operations services, such as cleaning rest rooms and tr

Several agencies will continue operations even during the shutdown. Thousands of Border Patrol agents, prison guards and air-traffic controllers across the country will be required to work without pay.

According to the state Office of Management and Budget the North Dakota Department of Transportation operations will continue as normal. Job Service North Dakota has enough funding to continue its operations for three to four weeks before funding runs dry and office closures may become necessary.

Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com. Reach Brian Gehring at 701-250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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