The Transylvania Times -

By Park Baker
The Transylvania Times 

Shutdown's Impact Being Felt In Transylvania

 

January 14, 2019

Derek McKissock

Visitors to the Pisgah Ranger Station Saturday were greeted by the above news.

Over the weekend, the partial government shut-down surpassed the previous 21-day record and its impacts are being felt in Transylvania County, from trail maintenance on public lands to the wallets of local nonprofits.

As of today, the shutdown is in its 24th day, three days longer than the shutdown during the Clinton administration in the winter of 1995-96.

Congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump are at a stalemate over funding a $5.7 billion wall on the border with Mexico.

Locally, there were roughly 127 federal employees that live in Transylvania County, according to the N.C. Bureau of Labor Statistics in the second quarter of 2018, which is the most recent available reporting period.

The bureau listed 6,216 federal employees in the 11th Congressional district in 2016, which makes up the bulk of the westernmost North Carolina counties.

Despite the partial shutdown, some federal workers, such as Pisgah District Ranger Dave Casey, were spotted out and about. Last week, Casey was seen in Pisgah National Forest assisting a motorist who had become stuck in a larger-than-average mud hole on Forest Service Road 475 behind the state fish hatchery.

Casey declined to comment about how the shutdown was impacting local public lands.

Law enforcement officers in the national Forest Service are still out on patrol, though, and all trails are open. All gated roads that can be shut have been. But the impacts of Winter Storm Diego and the weekend's ice storm can still be seen throughout Pisgah and elsewhere in the county. Downed trees from the storm – cut back in many places just to the white line to create enough room for a vehicle to pass through – block lanes in either direction all over the place, and mud holes, like the one where Casey was spotted, are likely to remain a headache for commuters for the foreseeable future.

The stretch of gravel road that goes from the fish hatchery to Balsam Grove remains open as many people use it to get to Brevard.

Davis Wax, the recently hired trail specialist for the Pisgah Conservancy, has an office in the ranger station on U.S. 276, and while he said the agreement with the nonprofit and the Forest Service is still in place, the mess that Winter Storm Diego left will also remain for the time being.

"The shutdown is effecting The Pisgah Conservancy (TPC) in a couple of different ways," Wax said. "While TPC's agreement with the Forest Service is still in effect – allowing me to work, for instance – I can't collaborate with volunteers, since volunteer work on the district is prohibited until the shutdown is over. TPC also has a number of projects in the works that, while currently still on-track, could be affected by a prolonged shutdown due to being out of contact and the collaboration with the Forest Service. It also currently isn't clear if contractual trail work would be allowed during the shutdown. We are looking forward to the shutdown ending, so we can begin collaborating with the Forest Service once more, and so volunteer work can resume in the Pisgah."

Attempts to reach public relations personnel within the U.S. Forest Service through email have been returned with automated prompts, stating that communication will begin again when the shutdown has been lifted.

Pisgah has fared better than other public lands across the country.

Reports of vandals cutting out trees to gain four-wheel drive access to Joshua Tree National Park are spreading throughout mainstream media networks and overflowing trash bins in Yosemite National Park have also been reported.

The Transylvania Times saw no visible vandalism or trash left in the forest.

The Blue Ridge Parkway remains closed, as is typical in the winter.

The Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park are also closed. State public lands like Chimney Rock, Gorges State Park and DuPont State Recreational Forest all remain unaffected by the shutdown.

County government and administration are being impacted, however.

"Thus far, the only funds that we have been notified are funding streams that are tied to public assistance and nutrition funding, and we administer many of those funds locally," County Manager Jaime Laughter said. "We have citizens and clients who receive food stamps, work-first benefits and WIC who depend on those benefits that, according to the email, are only secure through February."

County officials received an email from the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services on Jan. 9 that read the Trump Administration would pay out food stamp benefits for the entire month of February.

Laughter said that there are 500 families in Transylvania County who receive WIC assistance, which helps with the nutrition of women, infants and children. She said the New Adventure Center preschool and the county school system rely partially on federal dollars for the food and nutrition programs for students, as well.

One month of the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits cost the federal government about $4.8 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Transylvania County, 56.8 percent of students received free and reduced lunch in 2017. In 2016, there were 4,741 SNAP beneficiaries in Transyl-vania County.

Laughter said there is a potential for secondary impacts and impacts to grant funds that originate at the federal level, as well, such as transportation funding.

She said the way those funds are approved, the impacts would be felt further out.

"For instance, our transportation grant applications have just been turned in for fiscal year 2020 and must be reviewed at the federal level," she said. "We expect there may be a delay in the review that could cause a backup at some point in the future for us to know if and how much funding we will receive from those applications."

Winter is typically a quieter time of the year in the mountains, but Laughter said the shutdown could hurt sales tax revenues, which would, in turn, impact the county budget.

"Finally, there is an economic impact to our community that we are aware of at the county level," she said. "The element of tourism impact could impact sales tax dollars that would impact our budget, but we will have to wait to see what those impacts look like in a few months. Tourism is one of many components that can impact sales tax, but it is property tax that shoulders the primary responsibility for county government funding. We also expect that those in our community who are not working due to the shutdown will face economic hardships in their household and that is also an impact that I would note for our community."

Officials and volunteers at local nonprofits, such as SAFE, are also worried about the impacts of those in need.

Sam Edney, the SAFE board's chairman, said the shutdown has impacted the flow of funds from the federal government to the state, which are meant to assist women dealing with domestic violence and abuse.

Sally Stepp, SAFE's executive director, said all of their programs are direct services to the victims of domestic violence.

"It's not just SAFE, it's any nonprofit that receives any federal funds that come through the state or directly to the nonprofits," Stepp said. "Even our law enforcement gets funding through the Department of Justice. There is potential that the sheriff's department is experiencing some impact, too."

SAFE received close to $500,000 last year through four different grants. Edney said there were more than 400 victims of domestic violence and abuse last year in the county.

"The average woman has to leave about seven times before they finally commit to staying out of that situation," Edney said. "SAFE helps them with education, how to apply for a job, how to get resources available from other community services. It's a real process. The federal government shutdown is impacting lives around Transylvania County. In the case of SAFE, not only are the victims services we provide impacted, but we have over 40 employees involved in all of this. We are doing everything we can to husband the resources we have and still provide the services that are so critical in our community.

"They're receiving pay right now, but we're dipping into our reserve account. I want the community to understand that SAFE is providing a great service to the community and to these individual families. The shutdown has the potential to harm our ability to do that."

Emily Lowery, director at The Haven homeless shelter, said that she isn't sure how the shutdown will impact her operations yet.

"Right now we have a couple of federal grants," she said. "We're not sure what that is going to look like when I go to submit requisitions for this month, but when I go to file for my reimbursements I am pretty sure there is no one in the office to fund them. We are funded mostly by community support. We have one small federal grant.

"I go to file for the reimbursements once a month, and I haven't done it for December yet. I have until the 15th of January to file. I have been communicating with the DHHS. There are people in the office in Raleigh. I am not sure if they're volunteering or what they're doing."

The Haven received an emergency solutions grant for $35,000 for 2019, which helps runs emergency shelters when the temperature drops below 30 degrees.

Becky Alderman, at Transylvania Vocational Services, said that her operations could be affected if the shutdown continues. She said operations through February are stable, but she will have to reassess when that time comes if one of her biggest clients, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is still shut down.

"We're just one of many small businesses that do business with the government," she said. "For us, we have commercial business, and we provide food for the military, but our biggest customer is the USDA. The milk and bakery mix we make go to food pantries. Everything we had shipped in the weeks prior to the shutdown, we are not getting paid for."

Derek McKissock

Fallen tree limbs are strewn beside U.S. 276 in the forest.

Alderman said TVS is going to have to expand its credit line, so it can pay their own suppliers, like Excelsior in Rosman, which supplies TVS with products.

One hundred and sixty people work at TVS, supplying food pantries to the lower 48 states.

"We have a few folks who live in subsidized housing, and if I'm understanding it correctly, they're concerned because they got a notice that their subsidized checks to their landlord weren't coming in after February," Alderman said. "Hopefully, the shutdown doesn't last that long. I don't know if your crystal ball is working but mine is pretty fuzzy these days, and if it goes on for that long, the whole country is in a world of hurt."

 
 

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