United States and military service flags had to be taken down along with the closure of the rest of the American Memorial Park grounds and facilities in Garapan yesterday, while the CNMI braces for worse impacts that could cut into health and welfare programs if the first U.S. government shutdown in 17 years drags on.
The U.S. immigration court on Saipan has also been closed indefinitely.
Except for Call-A-Ride drivers, employees at the Commonwealth Office of Transit Authority were relieved of duty yesterday until issues about federal grants are sorted out.
Esther Muña, acting Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. CEO, said the Women, Infants and Children or WIC Program has enough funding for now but if the shutdown goes beyond October, recipients could see “prioritization” of benefits.
“The WIC program is funding the purchase of food items for women, infants and children but should this shutdown drag on longer than a month, we need to start prioritizing,” Muña told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Muña reminded program areas to “be careful” about spending, and to hold off on some purchases that are not critical—at least until the federal shutdown is lifted.
“For us as a corporation, we are still worried how long it’s going to last,” she said.
Medicare is not affected at this time, the acting CEO said.
“The funding for the grants is not affected… But the project officers [in the U.S.] will not be working, we won’t be able to communicate with them… If you need to put in a grant application, the computer system would accept it. But there is no administrative support because they are furloughed,” Muña added.
Separately, the WIC Program said yesterday that normal administrative and clinical operations will continue in October 2013.
“Despite the shutdown of most offices and services of the U.S. federal government pending the passage of a fiscal year 2014 U.S. appropriations bill, the WIC Program has identified available funding resources to sustain operations through the end of October 2013. The CHCC will be providing updates in the next week on the operations status of our local WIC Program and other federally funded programs that may be impacted should the shutdown of the federal government remain past October,” it said.
The American Memorial Park in Garapan, Saipan was one of the 401 national parks forced to close as a result of the federal government shutdown. It will remain closed until the government reopens.
All visitor facilities at the American Memorial Park, including the Visitor Center, park restrooms, tennis courts, and unpaved park roads are closed.
All park programs, special events, and special use permits have also been canceled.
“The shutdown will prevent hundreds of park visitors from enjoying our historic sites and memorials,” said acting National Park Service acting superintendent Ron Borne in a statement yesterday.
Jason Beatty, chief ranger at the American Memorial Park in Garapan, said yesterday he didn’t receive the directive to implement the shutdown until 11:55pm Wednesday.
“We can’t have maintenance staff here to do the routine picking up of trash, mowing the lawn or fix the light if it’s down. Maintenance operations, which are a big role in this park, are affected. It also prevents us from allowing people to come to the park,” Beatty told Saipan Tribune.
Nine of the park’s 11 employees are on furlough because of the shutdown. The two, including Beatty, are exempted because they are law enforcement personnel.
Three Pacific Historic Park association employees are also on furlough.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), in a statement yesterday, said “fortunately, there are many important government services that are exempt,” including aviation, border control, Social Security, Medicare payments, mail service and continued payment to soldiers.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services separately notified the public yesterday that its offices nationwide are open.
But Sablan said there are federal employees in the CNMI who, along with 800,000 others nationwide, “are being furloughed—laid off until the shutdown ends.”
“Veterans, seniors, small business owners, visitors to our national parks will all feel the impact. Maybe not so much on day one, but as each day goes by we will all come to realize how much we rely on our federal government,” the delegate said.
He said anyone with retirement savings should also pay attention.
“A prolonged shutdown—or worse, another showdown over the nation’s debt limit in two weeks—could take a toll on family nest eggs. If America’s credit rating goes down, as it did the last time we had this fight, borrowing costs will rise, forcing tax increases or more reductions in the services we all count on,” he said.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos, in a statement after a briefing with some department and agency heads yesterday afternoon, cautioned CNMI employees to remain vigilant in the event the federal government shutdown is prolonged for an extended period of time.
The administration said CNMI federal grant programs remain in operation.
Unlike federal government employees throughout the nation, CNMI government employees who are considered “federally-funded” draw their salaries from federal grants awarded to the Commonwealth.
This was the center of discussion in a briefing that Inos and Lt. Gov. Jude U. Hofschneider held with department and agency heads who manage federal grant programs within the local government.
The administration said that, except for COTA, the agencies reported that they have either received their fiscal year 2014 grant awards, are the recipients of a multi-year grant award that covers the new fiscal year, or have sufficient carry-over funds that their agency is allowed to use in the current fiscal year.
“In the case of COTA, their office has yet to receive the official grant award, but have already been notified that the grant will be forthcoming. In light of this, Vince Merfalen, acting special assistant for public transportation, [on Wednesday] relieved COTA employees, with the exception of the Call-a-Ride drivers, from duty until this issue is sorted out,” the administration said.
Merfalen is in the process of reviewing COTA finances to determine whether there are sufficient carry-over funds that will allow the staff to return to work and resume normal operations.