New England News
4:27 pm
Mon September 30, 2013

Western Mass. Waiting on Word from Washington

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As a government shutdown looms, federally-funded programs in western Massachusetts are playing the waiting game.

With gridlock in Washington, one result of a shutdown could be the delaying of benefits to the state’s 394,000 military veterans. Rosanne Frieri is the Director of Veterans’ Services for the City of Pittsfield. She says she doesn’t expect a significant immediate impact on her office or the more than 130 veterans it currently serves.

“I’m looking at it as some kind of delay, especially if the people aren’t there to process the claims and things of that nature,” Frieri said. “As far as the monthly checks they receive, maybe just a little bit of slow down.”

Frieri says her office and other veteran service programs are waiting to see what happens on Capitol Hill.

“People depend on these checks for survival,” she said. “As far as new claims, there could be a real impact on that.”

Head Start is already operating on a tighter budget due to the previous federal sequestration cuts. $128,000 of a $2.4 million annual budget has been cut from the Berkshire County Head Start Program this year. The organization, which offers free, income eligible pre-school programs and at-cost child care and family services, has closed one of its five classrooms at its Johnson school site in North Adams. The program has also eliminated field trips, opened schools later than usual and will close earlier than normal in early May. Stacy Parsons is the program’s Executive Director.

“The information I have right now is that because we are working under a previously approved grant it will be business as usual,” Parson said. “There is no lapse in funding so there will be no interruption in service for any of our children or families.”

Parsons says the program is fully funded through June 2014, but its usual five-year, $2.3 million grant is scheduled for submission to the federal government in mid-October along with smaller grants to support projects such as building maintenance in the coming months.

“It will give us plenty of time if there are any changes to make whatever adjustments we need to do,” she said. “Anything that happens, our local focus would be maintaining services for kids. Hopefully any interruption at the government level will not be felt locally. We are going to be planning as if we will continue to be fully funded.

Parsons says Head Start continues to seek local grants to supplement portions already cut while remaining cautiously optimistic during this waiting game.

“Yes it’s a scary time, but we’re going to be okay,” said Parsons.

Lieutenant Colonel James Sahady is the Director of Public Affairs for the Massachusetts National Guard. He says the Massachusetts National Guard employs 900 civilians and those deemed essential personnel would remain employed, though that number is not known.

“Accepted DOD (Department of Defense) civilians or technicians would be paid retroactively once the last of funding ends,” Sahady said. “In the event of a lapse in funding, civilians who do not support those accepted activities would be put on emergency, no notice, non-paid furloughs.”

Sahady says  36 percent of the civilian employees at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield would be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown. He says approximately 799 total technicians of the Massachusetts National Guard would be furloughed. If needed, the Guard's active duty personnel would augment some of the duties the technicians normally perform.

“In the event of a government shutdown, we will assist our technician employees and their families affected by possible furloughs in whatever way possible,” he said. “We are employing all of our resources to face this issue head on to help reduce the effects that a shutdown would cause on our mission and our people.”

Sahady says there are about 9,000 service members in the state’s Army and Air National Guard.

“Military personnel would be directed to continue in normal duty status, he said. “Military service members would be paid retroactively once the last of funding ends. Although hindered, we will continue to carry on the mission to support the Commonwealth and our nation when called upon.”

According to a press release from U.S. Senator Edward Markey’s office, a government shutdown could delay contract awards and furlough employees of businesses contracted by the federal government. General Dynamics’ plant in Pittsfield supports the U.S. Navy.

“We don’t anticipate that a short shutdown will have any effect on our operations in Pittsfield,” the company’s Staff Vice President of Communications Rob Doolittle said in an email. “General Dynamics will continue to deliver products and services to our customers under the contracts that are currently in place.”

Among other federally-funded programs, social security benefits may be delayed and colleges may be unable to disburse student grants if the government shuts down. Congress and President Obama have until midnight Tuesday to pass and sign a bill to fund the government.