Government workers and their supporters hold signs during a protest in Boston.
Government workers and their supporters hold signs during a protest in Boston. Michael Dwyer/AP

Local officials are bracing for a confluence of funding crises barrelling toward transit, housing, food assistance, and … well, everything else.

The mayors are watching the clock—most of the time, helplessly—as the federal government’s partial shutdown finishes its fourth week, with consequences slowly mounting for their cities and residents.

Already, essential federal subsidies that help low-income people pay rent have expired, and if the shutdown crawls into a second month—which many think is likely—the impacts to federal food aid recipients could be catastrophic.

Thus far, many cities have been working to provide for their residents where the federal government isn’t.

“Our cities and counties are the safety net, and we’ll continue to have that safety net,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio.

But soon, the longer-term impacts of prolonged federal government absence will start to trickle down to cities in far more dramatic ways.

On top of those impacts to their residents, mayors are grappling with halted, slowed, or imperiled federal funds for development, transportation, police, and other projects. “The lack of federal funds will affect public safety, road repair, housing, and other essential services,” Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in a statement.

Less funding for food assistance, escalating demand

In Dayton, Ohio, one of Mayor Whaley’s biggest concerns is food pantries. “In two weeks they won’t have any funding for the storage of food,” she said. While the Department of Agriculture will continue providing food to local food banks in the area, according to the Dayton Daily News, the department won’t be able to shoulder the transportation and storage fees.

A spokesperson for Dayton’s food pantry told the Daily News that storage costs typically run about $14,000 a month. “The community’s in the process of trying to fill that void, but it’s rather expensive,” Whaley said.

But food pantries across the country are bracing for an even bigger crisis. Furloughed workers without pay could mean a sudden and dramatic uptick in customers, straining supply and budgets even more, and if the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) loses funding, pantries’ supplies will dwindle as another rush of people come their way.

According to the Washington Post, USDA will provide SNAP benefits through February by moving up the distribution date to January 20—before its money is set to expire. If the shutdown continues long past that, another creative solution will be required to keep benefits flowing through March.

Counties may foot the bill to keep opioid services running

Local nonprofits rely on federal grant funding to provide support to victims of violence, drug abuse, and more. And the consequences of lapsed funding for some of them can be so dire that cities are anticipating trying to foot the bills themselves.

In Cincinnati, Hamilton County could be forced to step in and provide additional funding to keep anti-opioid centers open should the shutdown extend past 30 days.

“No matter what is debated on the top level, here at the street level it’s us trying to save people’s lives and make our communities better,” Newtown police Chief Tom Synan, who is also co-chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, told WCPO.

This is part and parcel with a common refrain from local community and nonprofit leaders who are grappling with ground-level consequences of a shutdown they have no control over. “Mayors and local government officials don’t get to indulge in the luxury of partisan politics,” said Benjamin.

When the government shut down, grants from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became inaccessible.

These grants are reimbursement-based: Nonprofits spend to support survivors and victims and then seek reimbursement from the government. And the longer the shutdown goes, the more likely they will run out of money waiting for federal reimbursements to start moving again.

“If no one’s there to process the applications or the requests for reimbursements, we are very concerned we won’t get funding,” Amanda Meyers, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center, told the Wichita Eagle. “Without the funding we won’t be able to keep the doors open.”

Across the country, community-based nonprofits are struggling to keep doors open.

“You count on being able to submit that monthly reimbursement request because that’s what you’re making payroll,” North Carolina’s Carousel Center director Amy Feath told WWAY3. The center provides therapy for victims of assault.

The looming threat of home loss

Millions of Americans live in public housing or make ends meet with the help of government-sponsored rent subsidies that help keep them in their homes. As the shutdown churns forward, those renters increasingly face eviction and housing insecurity, as CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported last week.

Renters who receive Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance have seen their monthly payments end, and could face eviction at any point. The public housing operating fund and the housing choice voucher program received funding through February, but should the shutdown extend past that, local housing authorities that help connect low-income renters to stable housing would run out of money.

In response to this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent notices to landlords with federally subsidized tenants asking them to use their reserves rather than evict tenants, says the Washington Post. The Post also reported that the Office of Personnel Management released a letter urging renters to trade chores for rent from their landlords. (OPM later called this a mistake.)

And with so many residents facing issues, mayors and municipalities haven’t been able to figure out how or if they can even help, aside from “encourag(ing) our private-sector partners, our corporate citizens to be understanding,” said Benjamin.

But that doesn’t always work. In D.C., which has the most furloughed workers of any city, landlords were a mixed-bag on whether they would provide extensions or assistance to furloughed tenants. Some said they would “do the right thing” while others said “normal protocol will be followed,” according to a survey by DCist.  

Lost paychecks: Should cities step in?

Nearly 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed as a result of the shutdown. Last Friday, most of them missed their first paychecks. This particularly impacts cities with the largest federal workforces, and that means more than just Washington, D.C.—though that city is particularly affected by the shutdown.

A map showing the amount of federal workers in each county.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (David H. Montgomery CityLab)

To make ends meet, some federal workers have been thrust into the gig economy. The Washington Post reports that many furloughed workers from across the country are selling their belongings en masse on Craigslist to make ends meet. Buzzfeed reports that furloughed workers are being targeted online with ads to become Uber, Lyft, and Postmates drivers.

But in some places, even that may not be able to help. In D.C., taxi, Uber, and Lyft drivers report income losses of up to 75 percent, according to Washington City Paper, as the city’s huge federal workforce waits at home for government operations to resume, and its shuttered museums fail to draw normal amounts of tourists.

For the most part, cities are powerless to help residents facing loss of income. Across Ohio, nearly 7,000 workers are furloughed because of the shutdown, and many of those cuts are in the Dayton area. “There’s not much the city can do for that number,” Dayton’s Mayor Whaley told CityLab.

But a few local officials are trying to step in. This week, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and Webster Bank announced a partnership to provide interest-free loans to essential federal employees who are working but can’t receive a paycheck.

And a few cities, including San Jose and Atlanta, are considering footing the bill for some federal airport employees working without pay, in an effort to at least keep airport operations running smoothly.

Infrastructure plans and disaster recovery could reach a standstill

Small cities rely on federal funding for crucial housing and infrastructure projects, and to recover from disasters.

These funds, via Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), won’t be cut off entirely. According to HUD. these grants specifically related to disaster relief will continue to reach municipalities that need them. Non-disaster related funds can be a different story while HUD workers are furloughed.

"We rely on the individuals at HUD to work with us to ensure that these funding sources continue. If it was another two or three weeks of shutdown, and these individuals were not working, we would have to stop our Community Development Block Grant program and the projects that we intend to fund this year, until such time as we receive the funds from the federal government," Erie County, New York’s county executive Mark C. Poloncarz said in a statement.

According to the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding, grant funding from HUD, including CDBG and homeless assistance grants, will be delayed. “At some point, the federal government may not have funds available to reimburse local jurisdictions for program and project expenses, which would require cities and counties to halt funding to nonprofit organizations that rely on this funding,” says the CHCD report.

At the same time, funding for emergency and disaster preparedness is under stress. Should the shutdown continue, furloughed National Weather Service staffers will miss important trainings and the service may have to delay launching a new-and-improved forecasting model.

Transportation funding will start to run dry

Nearly 90 percent of employees at the Federal Transit Administration have been furloughed, putting local transportation grants and funding in uncertainty. "U.S. mass transit systems have temporarily lost financial aid that supports a wide range of needs, from daily maintenance and service to ongoing repair and expansion projects," the credit rating firm Moody’s wrote in a report.

“We’re finding that, in many cases, our members need those dollars, and there’s no one there to answer the phone and to release the funds,” Paul Skoutelas, the president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, told Governing. “Grants are either waiting to be approved or have been approved, but there’s nobody to activate those funds. So agencies are experiencing cash-flow issues around that.”

Some transit agencies will have to tap reserves or take out loans should the shutdown continue.

For example, Moody’s highlights the New Jersey Transit System, for which federal funding covers all of its debt service and 43 percent of its capital improvements. Transit grants from the federal government are usually distributed in the early spring, so for now things are okay. That would change if the shutdown extends close to or past the normal distribution date.

According to the Department of Transportation’s shutdown report, the FTA won’t be able to distribute grant money or reimbursements, which usually help cover transit agencies operating expenses.

The report also says that FTA employees won’t be able to provide “environmental, legal, civil rights, and other reviews essential to advancing projects to the point of obligation,” meaning that new transit project plans will stall until the shutdown ends.

According to NASDAQ, New York’s MTA depends on funding from the federal government to help fund a quarter of its capital-improvement plan, and Los Angeles’ metro-expansion project has had funding interrupted as well.

Meanwhile, officials in Oklahoma announced that they would delay bids on transportation projects worth $137 million until they could be sure about federal funding.

The shutdown is nearing 30 full days, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called on the president to postpone his State of the Union address until the government reopens. But the impasse remains: Congressional Democrats won’t give the president his wall, and the president won’t accept anything less than it.

Municipal and local officials, frustrated and exasperated, are grappling with the results.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a statement last week pillorying the federal government for failing to solve this problem, and more action could be on the way from the nation’s mayors.

“The start of [the U.S. Conference of Mayors convening] is on January 22 in Washington. 250 mayors are gathering there, and prayerfully, this is resolved by then,” said Benjamin. “If it’s not, it will be the top of the agenda.”

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