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Petalumans feel government shutdown’s effects

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During a recent break in the winter rains, the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge bustled with activity. Sandpipers and avocets poked around in the tidal wetlands. A cyclist peddled along the five miles of levee trails above the mud flats.

Marin County resident Anthony Lewis was out for a stroll in the sunshine.

Notably absent, though, were any of the workers who maintain these salt marsh trails, empty the overflowing garbage cans and explain the wildlife to curious visitors. The refuge, just eight miles south of Petaluma, is the closest federal land to the city. It is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the five federal employees have all been furloughed during the government shutdown.

If a visitor trips and falls or twists an ankle, a park ranger won’t be able to assist them. But Lewis doesn’t seem to mind. He’s been collecting pocketfuls of rocks, a practice he isn’t sure is entirely legal.

“I feel bad for the people who can’t do their jobs, but it won’t stop me from coming out here,” he said. “It’s better, there’s no one here to hassle you.”

As the longest government shutdown in history plays out in Washington, Petaluma residents are starting to feel the impacts. From minimal staffing at popular public open spaces to the threat of losing federal food subsidies, the shutdown is casting a long shadow over many aspects of people’s lives.

It is even more directly impacting some Petaluma residents who work for the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Parks Service and other agencies and federal contractors, who are not sure when the next paycheck will arrive.

“For us, our greatest concern is that we are here to protect the natural resources,” said John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation at Point Reyes National Seashore, 18 miles southwest of Petaluma. “The important message is that we are open, however, if you go on a hike and do get injured, response times are much slower.”

Dell’Osso, a Cotati resident, is working without pay during the shutdown like many employees deemed essential. Others have been furloughed, meaning critical work is not getting done. Dell’Osso estimated 10 to 12 National Seashore employees live in Petaluma. Other Petaluma residents include employees of NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coast Guard. Some federal employees spoke on background since they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Science projects take a hit

Federal scientists, who are studying the impacts of climate change on the marine life off of Point Reyes, aren’t able to plan future experiments. Point Blue Conservation Science of Petaluma has several federal contracts that are affected by the shutdown, including a cooperative agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to carryout research on the Farallon Islands.

Negotiations over another longterm agreement with Fish and Wildlife are on hold during the shutdown, according to Pete Warzybok, a senior marine ecologist and Farallon program leader for Point Blue. Meanwhile, without federal workers to provide logistics, like resupplying the islands with fuel and fixing the broken water pumps, Point Blue scientists may have to leave the tiny, biologically diverse islands west of the Golden Gate, something that hasn’t happened since 1968.

“It’s anxiety producing for us,” Waryzbok said. “We have a lot of empathy for our colleagues on furlough. They want to be fulfilling their mission. It’s frustrating for a lot of people. If this drags on, it’s going to become an issue and we may have to take staff off the island.”

A workshop convening federal and state partners to Point Blue’s Petaluma headquarters was postponed. This isn’t the first shutdown Point Blue has had to endure, said Michael Fitzgibbon, the director of operations, and the organization has plans for when they happen, like having a gate code to access federal lands that would normally be open to the public.

“We know the drill,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is the new normal. I hope it’s not the new normal forever.”

At the Petaluma Airport, Federal Aviation Administration employees who service the visual navigation system have been working without pay, according to Joshua McKeighan, the interim airport manager.

“They have been responsive,” he said, adding that the airport does not have federal air traffic controllers.

Coast Guard unpaid

The federal workers primarily affected in the North Coast are Coast Guard employees, as the agency employs about 4,000 from Monterey to Bodega Bay. The Coast Guard operates a training center in Two Rock and a station in Bodega Bay.

At the Two Rock training center, 325 active-duty members are on the job, working without pay, while 56 of the 78 civilian employees have been furloughed, according to Lt. Luciana Ganley, a spokeswoman for the center. The agency is under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ganley said that operations are continuing at the center, but employees are concerned about missing paychecks.

“We have junior folks up to our commanding officer, there’s concern all over the pay scale,” she said. “We all remain upbeat and supportive of each other and we’re very thankful for the support the community has shown us during this challenging time.”

The Coast Guard Spouses’ Association Petaluma held a donation drive at the Petaluma Veteran’s Building, collecting supplies and gift cards for Coast Guard personnel working without pay. Cash donations are accepted at paypal.me/PetalumaChapterCPOA.

Sara Sass of Boulevard Barbers on Petaluma Boulevard is offering free haircuts to enlisted Coast Guard members until the current government shutdown ends. Sea West Credit Union is trying to help alleviate the payday stress by offering interest free payroll loans for 30 days and other special services to active, retired or civilian members of the Coast Guard. They have a branch located in the Two Rock training center.

“The hard-working men and women of the United States Coast Guard are being seriously affected by the government shutdown,” Tom Doherty, president and CEO of Sea West said in a statement. “With a payday that is now not guaranteed, many are worried about paying basic bills. Our organization was founded specifically to serve and support the Coast Guard and we will do all within our power to support them during this time.”

Federal food assistance in doubt

Low income residents who rely on food subsidies could be especially vulnerable during the shutdown, said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which administers several federal programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program at the federal level, is one of the agencies unfunded during the partial government shutdown. Funding for SNAP is due to run out at the end of February, while programs that feed seniors and women and children are not receiving funding but can continue to operate at the state and local level with funding and resources that remain available, according to the USDA.

Hempel said the uncertain future as the shutdown drags on is causing stress for those who depend on these programs to buy food.

“For people who use these federal programs, it triggers anxiety,” she said. “I know it keeps me awake at night. I can’t imagine how it affects someone who is trying to feed their family.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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