Chattanooga-area officials prepare for possible government shutdown

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / Volunteers pack emergency food boxes in 2022 at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. The boxes are distributed at the Foxwood Food Center.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Volunteers pack emergency food boxes in 2022 at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. The boxes are distributed at the Foxwood Food Center.


As the federal government struggles to agree on a yearly budget and heads toward a government shutdown, federal offices and parks around Chattanooga face possible closures, and employees and contractors could face furloughs or unpaid work.

While a short shutdown would have limited effects in and around Chattanooga, the longer the potential shutdown lasts the worse the pain would be, local and federal officials say.

 

"I have worked for months to avoid a government shutdown," U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Southeast Tennessee, said by phone Friday. "I have served through three, and they are never good. ... It indicates a failure."

Fleischmann has been meeting with House leadership to try to come to an agreement on the budget, worried that without one, the Biden administration will allocate money only to its own priorities, the congressman said.

Some federal government services, including Social Security payments, Medicare and Veterans Affairs, are deemed essential and should keep operating as usual in the event of a shutdown, according to a release from the White House.

(READ MORE: A government shutdown is nearing this weekend. What does it mean, who's hit and what's next?)

But others, like immigration courts, passport services and low-risk food safety inspections, could suspend some of their operations temporarily during a shutdown.

Bento Lobo, a finance and economics professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said in an interview that the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could all be affected.

"These are all agencies that will not be functioning," Lobo said, "and it has implications for food testing, drug testing, labor issues, environmental water testing, all that kind of stuff."

When federal agencies stop work during a shutdown, there's also a loss of data during that time, Lobo said. That means standardized national information about employment, the economy and the environment may have gaps, he said.

"There's no staff," Lobo said. "They don't collect data, they can't process the data. They're asked to go home, basically."

Food bank

A shutdown could interfere with federal food supplies at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Director of Advocacy Jeannine Carpenter said by phone.

The food bank gets at least 15% of its food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Carpenter said, including a substantial portion of its fresh produce. Orders for food are already in place, Carpenter said, but some programs use federally contracted drivers to deliver the shipments, which she said may make it more difficult to get the orders to Chattanooga.

"We are certainly ordering shelf-stable foods with the presumption that we might need more," Carpenter said. "We will do whatever it takes to get food if we need it. We're just hoping that the best happens, but we'll be prepared for the worst."

Extended shutdowns could also lead to higher demand for food assistance, Carpenter said, as federal employees start to miss paychecks. Also, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes called food stamps, could be affected.

"The one positive thing that we have heard is that SNAP payments will continue to go out for the month of October," Carpenter said. "So that mitigates some of the impact."

The state's Women, Infants and Children aid program office also told food banks that it has enough money to keep distributing assistance in the short term, Carpenter said. Around 133,000 people receive the assistance in Tennessee, according to the White House.

"Any time there's a shutdown, it's the vulnerable populations across our region who feel it the most," Carpenter said. "The elderly, the disabled, veterans."

Fleischmann is pushing for a continuing resolution that would temporarily fund federal operations and delay a full vote on the budget until mid-October or November, the congressman said. But Carpenter worries that if lawmakers don't come to an agreement in that time, it would only delay a shutdown and possibly push it into colder weather and the holiday season, when need is already high, she said.

Parks

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Cannons mark the position of Culpepper's South Carolina Battery in the lawn of the Brotherton Cabin along LaFayette Road in Chickamauga National Military Park on June 8.
 
 

Some national parks will operate in a more limited capacity, or not at all.

In the Chattanooga area, a federal shutdown could close national park facilities such as the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center, the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center and Point Park on Lookout Mountain. Parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg — the most visited national park in the United States — also could close, starting Sunday.

Gates at Point Park, which is part of the military park, have been closed during past government shutdowns. Parts of the battlefield may still be accessible from roads that run through the area, though bathrooms and other facilities may not be available, according to guidance from the Department of the Interior.

When a congressional budget stalemate shut down the federal government in 2014, national parks were closed for 16 days, and spending by visitors to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park plunged by 60%.

TVA

The Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest federal government employer in the Chattanooga area.

The agency will not be affected by the budget impasse because it's an independent federal corporation financed by electricity sales from its ratepayers in seven states, TVA officials said.

"TVA is funded almost exclusively from the sales of electricity, not federal appropriations," TVA spokesperson Scott Fiedler said in an emailed statement. "In the case of a federal government shutdown, operations at TVA would continue as normal."

Travel

Air travel could see delays and longer security lines in the event of a shutdown, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Air traffic controllers and security agents will be asked to work without pay, which led to longer wait times and delayed planes during previous shutdowns, a statement from the Department of Homeland Security said. Those workers are deemed essential.

"There shouldn't be any impact on air service due to a shutdown, but we still recommend contacting your airline prior to arriving at the airport and checking in at least two hours early on the day of your departure," the Chattanooga Airport said in an emailed statement from spokesperson Albert Waterhouse.

Courts

Chattanooga's federal courthouse will likely be able to operate normally for at least two weeks thanks to money collected from court fees, Chris Field, chief deputy clerk for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said by phone. During that time, cases will continue and fees and fines will still be due on their typical schedules, Field said.

If the shutdown lasts beyond that, Field said, courts will cut back to limited staff.

Court employees will be paid with fee money while it lasts, Field said.

"That would be an alternative way," Field said. "That's not how they're typically paid."

Chickamauga Dam

A federal shutdown also won't shut off lock operations on the Tennessee River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the biggest construction project in Chattanooga — building a replacement lock the Corps is overseeing at Chickamauga Dam.

Lock operations are considered an essential service for river barge shipments, so lock operators for the Corps will remain on the job, even if there is no guarantee of regular paychecks during a shutdown, Lee Roberts, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Corps of Engineers Nashville District, said by phone.

Some employees of the Corps could be furloughed if there is a shutdown, but river locks will continue to operate, Roberts said.

Construction of a new and bigger lock at the Chickamauga Dam also will continue under a previously approved contract with the contractor for the project, the Oakland, California-based Shimmick Construction Co.

Fleischmann, chair of the appropriations panel that funds the Corps of Engineers, approved a spending plan through the House Appropriations Committee in June to add another $236.8 million to the Chickamauga Lock project to ensure its completion. The U.S. Senate has yet to act on that measure, and the budget stalemate could jeopardize that spending plan.

President Carter's birthday

Former President Jimmy Carter, who turns 99 Sunday, decided to move his birthday celebration to Saturday at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta in anticipation of a possible federal government shutdown on Carter's actual birthday, Oct. 1.

"We want to make sure we are celebrating regardless of what Congress does," Tony Clark, the site's public affairs director told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.

Contact Ellen Gerst at [email protected] or 423-757-6319.


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