EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 18, 2013

Shutdown ends just in time for local aid

By Jill Harmacinski and Douglas Moser
Staff writers

---- — Part of the federal government was shuttered for 16 days while Congress wrangled over spending and debt issues, and for some locally who depend on federal assistance, Wednesday night’s 11th-hour resolution was just in time.

The impasse meant that Congress had not approved a spending plan, holding up federal dollars that go to state and local governments for everything from roads to heating assistance to housing to education.

The shutdown ending was welcome news yesterday for workers in a Lawrence-based heating assistance program, who faced layoffs if the standoff over the budget were not resolved by yesterday.

“They were very happy this morning. We were all very relieved,” said Evelyn Friedman, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council.

Had the shutdown lingered, 12 workers in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, faced layoffs. The program provides heating assistance to poor families, senior citizens and the disabled during winter months.

Based at the GLCAC office at 305 Essex St. in Lawrence, the federally-funded program last year provided $4.2 million in heating assistance to 10,800 clients from Lawrence, Methuen, Andover, North Andover and Reading.

While the GLCAC is still waiting for federal reimbursement to pay the LIHEAP workers, Friedman said she was told the payments will be retroactive and cover the 16-day shutdown span.

“We’ll be able to cover them for a while until the money actually flows,” Friedman said.

Additionally, the state is providing an additionally $20 million which can be used for heating assistance, she said.

“That will keep us going ... We can put that money in place to cover until the federal money comes,” she said.

State officials warned that if the shutdown continued, some 200,000 households that rely on heating assistance would be effected.

Area city officials said the shut down did not disrupt community development grants, projects or the staff overseeing them, which are funded with federal money.

In Lawrence, community development director James Barnes said his department’s grants with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where much of the community development grants originate, were approved and set up for electronic disbursal before the shut down.

“They’re all electronic funds transfers,” he said. “We had our funds set up through the whole fiscal year, through June 30, 2014.”

A protracted shut down could have delayed projects, though, where the city needed clarification from a HUD official or a signature on an environmental review to move forward.

Another long-term concern was whether federal money that flows first through the state would have been held up.

Haverhill did not miss a beat either, said community development director William Pillsbury. A disruption in the flow of federal funds, for the near term anyway, could be filled by the city budget until federal funds began flowing again. Conceivably, he said, a long shut down could have had an impact.

“But the city is in a position to fund the payroll and get it back on a reimbursable basis,” he said. “That money is a grant.”

A standoff over defunding President Obama’s health care law, which was passed in 2010 and has major provisions going into effect now, led to Congress failing to pass temporary spending plans to keep the federal government open. On Oct. 1, hundreds of thousands of federal employees were furloughed, though Congress did approve a measure to give them back pay once the standoff was resolved.

After a number of false starts and failed attempts, the U.S. Senate and House approved a temporary spending measure Wednesday that also increased the statutory federal borrowing limit.

The federal government was funded to Jan. 15, and the debt limit raised enough to get by until Feb. 7.

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