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Government shutdown could affect parks, taxes

Obama says deal may be announced this morning

POSTED: April 8, 2011 1:25 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Hahn Nguyen, right, and her brothers Phuoc, center, and Vu, right, play bocce ball Thursday at Van Pugh Park.

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Barring an eleventh-hour reprieve from Congress, the federal government will run out of money and shut down at midnight tonight.

Exactly what that means for residents of Northeast Georgia was unclear Thursday.

Officials at several federal agencies said they were waiting for direction from Washington to know exactly how they would be affected. Most were planning for offices to be closed and employees to be furloughed.

Essential services would continue. Workers would remain on the job at Lake Lanier's Buford Dam to keep the facility running, said Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Mobile, Ala.

But the corps' park facilities and boat docks on Lanier would close if Congress and the White House can't agree on a new budget deal by the deadline tonight, she said.

"We're waiting to hear from the administration about furloughs (for employees)," Coghlan said. "At this point, we've been told to plan on returning to work on Monday, and we'll be told what happens from there."

If the corps' facilities are forced to close, residents can continue to use county parks on the lake.

The two sides are deadlocked over billions of dollars in spending cuts and dramatic changes in social programs and regulatory powers.

Late Thursday, President Obama suggested that progress was being made in talks and that a deal could be announced this morning. White House and congressional staff were expected to work into the overnight hours to reach a deal.

"My hope is that I'll be able to announce to American people relatively early in day that a shutdown has been averted," Obama said.

The budget impasse leaves questions for many. Mail would continue to be delivered because the U.S. Postal Service doesn't get federal money.

National parks and museums like the Smithsonian Institution would be forced to close, leaving employees on furlough and vacationers struggling to rearrange their plans.

Ongoing military operations would continue, but pay to military members could be delayed. Likewise, Social Security payments and Medicare coverage would continue, but reimbursements to doctors and hospitals could be delayed if the shutdown grows lengthy.

The filing deadline for federal taxes remains April 18, but the Internal Revenue Service would stop processing paper returns, so refunds could be delayed. Tax audits would be suspended.

Air traffic controllers would stay on the job, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency would continue to respond to natural disasters.

Less certain is how a government shutdown might effect local governments and agencies that depend on federal dollars. A number of sources said the shutdown wouldn't be felt locally unless it lasted for several days or weeks.

"I've read an advisory that said the president could choose to hold funds and make (the shutdown) more noticeable, or he could choose to stage the shutdown in a way that, unless it goes on for a long time, we won't even notice it," said Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, which receives federal money for such programs as Title I and school nutrition.

Dyer said the school system would miss a payment to one of those programs if the shutdown goes on for a week or two, but it wouldn't have an immediate impact on the system's ability to function.

A mid-1990s shutdown resulted in the delay of some government benefit checks, but Dyer said the Gainesville system wasn't affected. That shutdown, the longest ever, lasted 23 days.

The Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center gets about $1 million in federal funding, but director Phillipa Lewis Moss said the state agencies that distribute that money already have those dollars in their departments.

"An extended or prolonged shutdown would cause a backup of reimbursement requests, but that would only happen if the shutdown extended for several weeks," Moss said.

She also is concerned about taxpayers waiting for a refund.

"One thing we talked about is tax refunds slowing down," she said. "If that happens, will people start going to rapid refund places and will these businesses be able to give a refund?"

At Northeast Georgia Medical Center, officials are monitoring developments in Washington. At this point, they believe a shutdown wouldn't affect Medicare in the short term.

"From what we're being told, we'd have the resources we need to be able to continue to function," said Sean Couch, a hospital spokesman.

Staff writer Carolyn Crist and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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