DSS effects severe if shutdown continues
by Kellen Short
A dire situation awaits the clients and staff of the Watauga County Department of Social Services if Congress does not reach a deal to end the government shutdown by the end of the month, according to the local DSS leadership.
DSS Director Jim Atkinson said Wednesday if a deal is not reached, approximately 300 Watauga County children will no longer receive child care subsidies, forcing parents to find alternatives and spelling trouble for daycares that depend on that funding to stay open.
Work First, which provides financial assistance to between 35 and 40 individuals in Watauga County, will cease sending welfare checks.
About 2,000 families currently receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will see no money on their electronic benefit transfer cards.
And all or some of the 47 DSS employees at the Boone headquarters may be furloughed, eliminating the possibility that even programs that are still funded could operate during the shutdown.
Atkinson and county administrators are planning for those worst-case scenarios while hoping that Congress will reach a deal on reopening the government and avoiding default on its debts.
"We're trying not to go into panic mode too much, because the assumption is people are going to do the right thing," Atkinson said.
Senate leaders announced Wednesday a deal to raise the nation's debt limit through Feb. 7 and end the 16-day government shutdown. A vote is expected to occur in the Senate and House on Wednesday afternoon or evening. It would then need approval from President Barack Obama.
The Senate's latest plan would not make any major changes to the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed "Obamacare," and would fund the government through Jan. 15.
Meanwhile, a committee of House and Senate representatives would work to hammer out a broader deal and issue budget recommendations by mid-December.
The deep political divisions that have created gridlock at the federal level were mirrored Tuesday at the Board of Commissioners meeting as Atkinson and County Manager Deron Geouque updated the board on plans.
"It's pretty clear there's some pretty direct results that everybody's suffering from this dysfunction in Washington," Commissioner Billy Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a Democrat, suggested sending the data about local DSS effects to Rep. Virginia Foxx, implying that she and House Republicans were to blame for the crisis.
Vice Chairman David Blust fired back in anger, blaming the president and Democrats -- and Kennedy for turning the conversation from policy to politics.
"Don't make it political," Blust said. "Stop doing that. I knew you were going to do that, Billy."
The exchange continued briefly before Chairman Nathan Miller brought the board back to order, with Blust pinging a final "you started it" toward Kennedy.
Aside from shuttering the agency, the county's only other option would be to pick up the tab itself for DSS personnel and programs -- with no guarantee that the federal government would reimburse those costs, Geouque said.
"We can't afford to fund what the federal government says it's going to fund," Miller said. "We can't take that over. We cannot physically bear it, and we have no say-so over the programs. There's no guarantee that we're going to get paid back."
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