Shutdown Threatens Basic Services, Slows Court, but FEMA Assistance Secure

Governor-elect Albert Bryan Jr. receives a briefing on the hurricane recovery effort at the FEMA Joint Field Office in St. Croix on Dec. 8. (Photo from the office of Governor-elect Albert Bryan)
Then Governor-elect Albert Bryan Jr. receives a briefing on the hurricane recovery effort at the FEMA Joint Field Office in St. Croix on Dec. 8. (Photo from the office of Governor-elect Albert Bryan)

As the third week of the U.S. government’s partial closure ends with no resolution in sight, the Virgin Islands’ dependence on the federal government, and its attendant vulnerability, is becoming increasingly clear.

The federal government directly and indirectly employs hundreds of V.I. residents, and, through grants and programs, it pours millions of dollars into the territory each year.

One of the more wide-ranging impacts of the shutdown could land on the doorsteps of residents at and below the poverty line, particularly those receiving federal financial assistance in the form of Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps.  Roughly one quarter of the V.I. population relies on food stamps.

The Department of Agriculture this week announced a possible method for ensuring those benefits in the immediate future, saying state governments must formally apply for February SNAP assistance by Jan. 20. Further, the USDA press release seems to suggest that the “work-around” will require the local government to advance next month’s payments to individuals and wait to be reimbursed until the department has the necessary funding, which is a time uncertain.

“I am of the opinion that it does [require such an advance],” Carol Burke, spokeswoman for the V.I. Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP, told the Source Thursday.

She declined to comment on the ability of the cash-strapped local government to provide an advance or to say how much money could be required.

The sum will clearly be substantial, however. According to the USDA, in 2016 it provided a total of $56.8 million in SNAP assistance to the Virgin Islands. There were 27,760 V.I. participants (out of a population of about 100,000.)

Burke said DHS is working to find a way to ensure residents get their February allotments.

“We have been looking at everything that’s available to us,” she said. “It’s indeed critical. It’s absolutely critical.”

Another major nutritional program – Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is safe for now. The USDA says it has about $600 million still available for it, more than half of that left over from prior year funds, and it will release February funding to the states. Lorna Concepcion, director of the WIC program at the V.I. Health Department, confirmed that the USDA Food and Nutrition Service has released funding to cover V.I. WIC participants in February. The local program serves an average of 2,900 people each month.

Meanwhile, in another sector, some legal cases are being put on hold because of staffing limits placed on the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

District Court is still hearing cases, and it is unclear just how much the shutdown has impacted its operations. Messages left for several officials seeking comment were not returned Thursday.

Early this week, U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert filed a motion in District Court asking for a stay of 30 days for civil cases that her office is representing.

“Due to the lapse in appropriations, certain Department of Justice attorneys and staff are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including ‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,’ . . . This includes most AUSAs and staff in this district who are assigned to handle affirmative and defensive civil cases. These AUSAs have been placed on furlough and will not be able to meet Court deadlines for filing documents, attend scheduled hearings or conferences, or communicate with the Court,” the motion reads in part.

Shappert said Thursday that the Court has not yet ruled on the motion. She declined to comment further on any aspect of the motion or the shutdown. She would not say how many staff members are on furlough or even say how many assistant U.S. attorneys are assigned to her office.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit – the body that hears appeals from the District Court in the Virgin Islands – posted a notice on its website declaring the Court is open during the shutdown. However, the notice says that filings by federal government agencies in non-emergency cases will be suspended during the shutdown. Attorneys appointed under the Criminal Justice Act should continue their representation and should submit vouchers for payment, but payment will be delayed.

For at least one federal agency, highly important operations in the Virgin Islands are not directly impacted by the shutdown. FEMA assistance in hurricane recovery is continuing.

“The Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), which supports ongoing disaster response and recovery operations, is not being impacted by the federal government partial appropriations lapse,” Eric Adams, FEMA media relations specialist, told the Source. “DRF funding is a separate appropriation and does not come from the portion of the federal budget that is being impacted at this time.”

Although nationally much of the agency’s staff has been furloughed, Adams said that “FEMA employees whose salaries are funded from other than annually appropriated funds, including employees engaged in disaster operations, will be allowed to continue working. This includes FEMA reservists and the cadre of on-call response employees, whose salaries are funded from the Disaster Relief Fund. These disaster employees will be able to continue working their regular schedules.”

Adams also said the agency’s Individual Assistance program will continue to provide help to individuals and households that have been deemed eligible for assistance under a previously declared Presidential Declaration “as funding for these activities are appropriated through the DRF.”