Local news

A month into federal government shutdown, Taos workers feel impact

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 1/18/19

Like the snow that's fallen over the past four weeks, the impacts of the prolonged shutdown of the federal government are piling up around Northern New Mexico.

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Local news

A month into federal government shutdown, Taos workers feel impact

Posted

Like the snow that's fallen over the past four weeks, the impacts of the prolonged shutdown of the federal government are piling up around Northern New Mexico.

Several days after New Year's, an elderly couple decided to explore the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro, part of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument that is officially closed as of today (Jan. 17). Even though no employees were on hand and the roads were only just barely plowed, the couple decided to take the car in a still-snowy camping area.

They got stuck and sat there for more than 12 hours, until a volunteer happened to see the one-way tire tracks and rescued them, said John Baily, the furloughed director of the moment.

The couple's close call is just one example of how a partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22, is starting to fray the edges of business-as-usual in the Land of Enchantment.

Because Taos County is about half federally owned lands shared between the Carson National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, it's one of the more obvious ways the shutdown is showing itself.

"We're playing things week by week," said Brad Higdon, acting field manager of the BLM's Taos Field Office. "We're in uncharted territory [since] this is the longest shutdown ever experienced. It's hard to know how things will play out."

Thankfully, winter is a slow season for the BLM locally. Visitor centers are closed, though restrooms remain open but unstocked with toilet paper. It wasn't until Wednesday (Jan. 16) that Higdon got the OK to close Wild Rivers. The authorization came from the BLM directors in New Mexico and in Washington, D.C., Higdon said, and reverses the initial direction to keep recreational areas open.

Higdon directed some questions to the state BLM communications director, Cathy Garber. Her voicemail said she's not authorized to work due to the shutdown.

Going without paychecks

Aside from Higdon, only two of the BLM's about 25 local employees, both law enforcement officers, are working. Neither of them is currently getting a paycheck. The officers, who are working full schedules in order to monitor would-be wood thieves and others taking advantage of the shutdown to strip areas of resources, will most likely receive back pay for the last few weeks. Furloughed workers like Higdon are more at the mercy of Congress, who must approve, but could deny, their back pay.

Cheron Ferland, a wildlife biologist with the Carson National Forest, hasn't been to work since December and is also going without a paycheck.

"I've been through a few furloughs, but nothing like this," said Ferland, who has worked for the Forest Service since 1989.

"I've got my mortgage, the truck payment, the student loans. Those are my three biggest burdens. And then there's all the other stuff: cell phone, electric, propane, fiber optic…" she said.

The research arm of the real estate company Zillow estimated that home-owning, unpaid federal workers collectively owe about $249 million in monthly mortgage payments.

Ferland "had a sense" that because of the current political climate, the shutdown "wasn't going to end easily or well." So she immediately started calling around to credit unions and loan companies to ask for help and apply for benefits.

"Being unemployed and trying to figure out what assistance you can get is almost a full-time job," she said. Most bank representatives are sympathetic, she said, and help has come through for her. She was able to get a deferment on the vehicle payments and student loans, signed up for a generous loan from Nusenda Credit Union and secured financial assistance for her utilities. Even her neighbors have offered to help; with the president speaking of the shutdown dragging on "for months or years," Ferland is starting to consider if she might actually reach that point, she said.

Even though Ferland feels "really good about the work I do" as a federal biologist, she's trying to take advantage of the time off. Eating out isn't a option, but skiing for free at Angel Fire is. And as a second-year apprentice to a falconer, Ferland is happy about getting to take her red-tailed hawk out to hunt.

"I learned that if you're scrappy, you can make it through this," she said.

EPA meeting postponed

Still, the effects of the shutdown are many.

The Environmental Protection Agency had a community meeting in Questa scheduled for Thursday (Jan. 24). The meeting was meant to discuss progress of the remediation at the closed Questa Chevron molybdenum mine.

The meeting has been postponed, said Nick Maestas, Questa village administrator. There was no official cancellation by the EPA. "We're in the dark as much as anyone else is," he said.

The Taos News called the regional EPA representative for the Questa Superfund site; the voicemail message was from March 2018.

Other impacts

Ted Dimond of Dimond Mortgage in Taos said that, luckily, only one of his company's federal home loans could be impacted by the shutdown and only if it drags on much longer.

Still, the potential for more impacts are there. "We can process [USDA and FHA] loans, do all the paperwork, but the government is not funding them at this point," he said.

Taos Pueblo Governor Richard Aspenwind said the federal furlough hasn't affected the tribe yet as deeply as it has others. "We're holding our own here," he said from his Taos Pueblo office earlier this week.

Taos Pueblo is one of 350 direct self-governance tribes, which allows it more flexibility in using federal dollars it receives to manage its own health, transportation and other programs.

He said the one difficulty is that federal websites the pueblo accesses for various reports and information are not being updated due to the federal government shutdown.

Federal food assistance is a major concern for many locals.

Roughly 7,532 people in Taos County, or nearly 23 percent of the county's population, participate in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to 2018 data. There are more than 25,000 SNAP households in New Mexico due for renewal this month, of which 14,500 were still outstanding as of Jan. 11, according to the state.

People participating in SNAP who are up for renewal in January had to submit their forms by Tuesday (Jan. 15) in order to receive food they need for February.

"New Mexicans are working tirelessly to provide for their families," said U.S. Rep Ben Ray Luján. "They do not have the luxury of ignoring their bills until the president figures out what it takes to run a government."

A helping hand

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative said Tuesday (Jan. 15) that the utility will not disconnect electric service for federal employees affected by the shutdown. Such employees can apply for an $80 credit toward their electric bill through the co-op's "Members Helping Members" program. They must submit a copy of their furlough letter.

New Mexico Gas Company is also offering payment arrangements for furloughed government workers. The company's number is (888)-664-2726.

Other help for federal employees will be added to this story at taosnews.com as information is available. If you know of an organization offering assistance, email chooks@taosnews.com with "Federal shutdown assistance" in the subject line.

Staci Matlock and John Miller contributed to this story.

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