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Federal freeze: Northland feels effects of government shutdown

Four kayakers paddle down a set of narrows on Namakan Lake in Voyageurs National Park. (2005 file / News Tribune)

The holidays are over, but phones are still going unanswered at some offices around Duluth.

"We are not in the office at this time and are on furlough due to the lapse in federal government funding," states the voicemail message at the Superior National Forest headquarters.

As the partial federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22 drags on, many workers in the Northland are staying home or working without pay.

The EPA office on Congdon Boulevard that usually bustles with more than 120 employees and contractors was operating with about a dozen people on Wednesday.

About 36 active-duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard in Duluth received a paycheck on Monday, but unless the shutdown ends before Jan. 15 the next check is not guaranteed, the service said. And three civilian employees in Duluth are out of work without pay, according to Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash.

There are about 1,600 federal employees in St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties, according to state figures. But so far, just 288 federal workers statewide have applied for unemployment insurance benefits, the Department of Employment and Economic Development reports. That points to a fairly limited impact.

"At this point during the 2013 shutdown, we had about 2,500 (unemployment applications)," said DEED spokesman Shane Delaney.

Senate Democrats estimated 420,000 people would be working without pay during the shutdown, and about 380,000 would be furloughed. Their Republican counterparts in the House said about a quarter of the federal government would be affected.

The shutdown stems from President Donald Trump's demand that Congress approve $5 billion for border wall funding before he approves any more spending bills.

Parks

Visitors to Voyageurs National Park should know that while roads and trails remain open during the shutdown, visitor services are severely limited — including emergency and rescue services, according to a park statement.

Public information, restrooms, trash collection and road maintenance, including plowing, are all unavailable. In addition, all park programs have been canceled. Social media and websites for all national parks are not being monitored during the shutdown.

The Bayfield Visitor Center at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has been closed since Dec. 22.

Colleges

Colleges and universities have mostly escaped the shutdown's headaches for now. Federal student financial aid is not affected, said University of Minnesota Duluth spokeswoman Lynne Williams. Research, however, could take a hit if the shutdown endures.

"Depending on how long the shutdown goes, we may start to see some impacts," she said.

Williams said most existing research grants have already been awarded but that multi-year awards could be affected. New awards could be most endangered during a prolonged shutdown.

"If we've got current faculty who are going to receive new research grants, that's where there would be a delay," she said. "Agencies aren't available to review projects."

Business

The shutdown could throw a wrench in business financing. The Small Business Administration is only offering disaster assistance until the shutdown ends, which eliminates a bridge many small businesses rely on to grow.

"As of the end of last week we can't approve any new loans that are SBA loans," said Shawn Wellnitz, CEO of the Duluth-based Entrepreneur Fund.

Those represent about a third of the group's loan volume, and the freeze comes ahead of the busiest time of the year.

'We're hoping the shutdown doesn't last much longer," Wellnitz said.

SNAP benefits

Those who rely on food stamps — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP — should expect benefits to continue this month.

"We anticipate that the government would use reserve money to continue funding SNAP" for January, said Dusty Letica, division director for St. Louis County Public Health & Human Services, which administers the SNAP program locally. "We're not sure how things would go after that."

About 10,000 households, or 15,000 individuals, receive SNAP assistance in St. Louis County, Letica said. If funding is disrupted, people who rely on SNAP assistance should get a notice in the mail 10 days in advance, he said.

Weather

Amid a dangerously cold start to the year, the 21 workers at the National Weather Service in Duluth are still operating as normal, said meteorologist in charge Mike Stewart — even though it's not clear, based on the agencies affected by the shutdown, when the next paycheck will arrive.

"We're here, we're supporting our mission — protecting life and property," Stewart said. "We have not changed our mission and our duties."

Indian Health Service

Direct clinical services provided by the Indian Health Service still are funded, but federal funding for tribal clinics isn't, said Samuel Moose, director of the Department of Human Services at the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. That applies to his department, but because it has other funding sources the direct impact has been minimal so far, Moose said.

He's not sure at what point the shutdown would become more of a problem.

"We were actually just meeting about that to see how much we have in reserve," he said Thursday. "I think for us, we're able to cover those expenses probably a couple of months out."

Other tribes may be experiencing more immediate cutbacks, Moose said.

The shutdown also has an impact on the IHS regional office in Bemidji, he added.

"When you call up to Indian Health Services right now, I think they have four or five people that are still in the office of the 30 people," he said. "The rest of the people are furloughed."

End in sight?

Lawmakers are expected to meet with the president Friday to search for an end to the shutdown.

Those who have been laid off, furloughed or are working without pay can visit www.uimn.org or call 1-877-898-9090 to determine unemployment benefits eligibility.