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Full impact of government shutdown on Big Island federal services unknown

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    The Social Security Office at Prince Kuhio Plaza will be open “for limited stuff” Monday, according to a manager who did not give his name.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald About 20 people await services Friday at the Social Security Office in Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo.

What will happen to federal services on Hawaii Island during the U.S. government shutdown?

You might already know as much as many government workers.

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“We don’t really know what’s going on,” a worker with the National Weather Service in Honolulu said Friday, who then referred calls to a public affairs line in Washington, D.C., where it was already after hours.

A U.S. Coast Guard representative also offered a D.C. phone number late in the afternoon.

Some services, such as veterans’ medical benefits and airline security, largely will be unaffected if the shutdown continues into Monday. Other federal offices, though, could close or cut back on certain services but keep offering those considered “essential.”

The Social Security Office at Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo will be open Monday “for limited stuff” considered essential, according to a manager who, like the NWS representative, did not give his name.

About 20 people were awaiting help at the Social Security Office just before lunchtime Friday.

“The door will be open (Monday),” the Social Security office manager said. “We don’t know what services we’ll provide.”

The regional office of Social Security in San Francisco sent a copy of a letter to the Tribune-Herald that was addressed to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, describing its contingency plan for a federal shutdown.

According to the letter, Social Security offices will continue to take new applications for benefits and process changes of address and add direct deposits. But services such as benefits verification, replacement of Medicare cards and record updates will be discontinued until a budget resolution.

As for recreation, the future is similarly up in the air. National parks are typically closed during federal shutdowns.

But Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said by email that “we expect the government to remain open, however, in the event of a shutdown, national parks will remain as accessible as possible while following all applicable laws and procedures.”

She referenced National Park Service contingency plans, which state that during a federal government shutdown, “the National Park Service will take all necessary steps to suspend all activities and secure national park facilities that operate using appropriations that are now lapsed, except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

Janet Babb, spokeswoman for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said monitoring of the island’s volcanoes will continue, with timely warnings for earthquakes or volcanic activity still being issued if necessary.

Susan White, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that shutdown-induced funding lapses will “certainly affect operations,” but could not provide specifics about how wildlife refuges, including the Big Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, will respond.

The Big Island’s military facilities also were preparing for the shutdown.

Eric Hamilton, spokesman for the U.S. Army garrison at Pohakuloa Training Area, said military officials reviewed personnel needs to determine who are essential to continue to operate the garrison.

Those personnel deemed nonessential will report to work today to perform an “orderly shutdown” before leaving.

“Training will be degraded somewhat from common levels of support,” Hamilton said about the ongoing training exercises at Pohakuloa. While training will continue, he said, the lack of support means some military personnel will fill in for absent civilians and will therefore not be training themselves.

“The world won’t end if a dysfunctional Washington can’t find a way to pass a funding bill before this weekend,” a Stars &Stripes article published Friday said. But that doesn’t mean things will work smoothly.

The newspaper for members of the U.S. military says all active duty military personnel will continue receiving pay during a shutdown “and then continue on the job without getting paid until the shutdown ended or until Congress and the president agreed to cover their costs before it ended.”

However, a statement from the U.S. Army Installation Management Command placed the payment of civilian personnel under question.

“In past temporary government shutdowns, furloughed civilians were paid retroactively, but there is no guarantee that will happen again,” the statement read.

Veterans and active duty members of the military rely on many federal benefits, including health care.

“The Veterans Health Administration received advance appropriations for fiscal year 2018 as part of the 2017 budget,” spokeswoman Amy Rohlfs said in an email to the Tribune-Herald from the Veterans Administration Pacific Islands Health Care System. “So in the event of a government shutdown, VHA would continue full operations. In addition, even in the event that there is a shutdown, 95.5 percent of VA employees would come to work, and most aspects of VA’s operations would not be impacted.”

That 95.5 percent includes “VHA staff and those staff legally excepted from shutdown under VA’s shutdown plan,” such as essential personnel who work at the Hilo VA clinic.

The Internal Revenue Service office in Hilo only handles in-person appointments scheduled ahead of time, so a call to the office wasn’t answered Friday. For people who already have an appointment, if it’s closed Monday, the only way to find out will be to go to the door.

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Email Mike Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.