Posted: December 4, 2015 at 8:17 pm
by Jack Baronner, Dakota Hoover and Kelly Mills
The last time Congressional gridlock forced a federal government shutdown in 2013, Aaron Whitacre, a systems administrator in Keyser, West Virginia, was one of 800,000 workers furloughed without pay for 16 days. Whitacre, who is employed by IBM, was working as a contractor for a federal agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, and he found himself glued to his television screen, hoping he could soon return to work and normal life.
Whitacre is among many West Virginians gritting their teeth in anticipation of another possible government shutdown this week. Congress must still approve the spending details its members agreed to in October to avert a shutdown then. If it fails to reach a consensus by Dec. 11, the federal government will shut down, according to the New York Times.
With a total veteran population of about 167,000, 306 active duty military personnel, and an economy driven by tourists flocking to the national parks located here, West Virginia stands to lose a lot of revenue if there is another government shutdown.
“Some people are living paycheck to paycheck and that can be very debilitating,” says Richard Trott, Chief of Facility Planning and Management at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
The national parks system is one of the many federal agencies affected during a nation-wide government shutdown. As many as 21,000 national park staff members would be furloughed without pay, and the parks would be closed to the 715,000 tourists that usually visit them each day according to the National Park Service.
The state relies heavily on eco-tourism, or tourism based around nature. With a plethora of some of the most popular national parks in the nation, like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which attracted 261,202 visitors in 2014, the New River Gorge National River, and the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia boasts a robust and scenic national parks system.
Even the most well-known scenic trail in the United States makes a rather important stop in the Eastern Panhandle. The Appalachian Trail traverses 14 states with Harpers Ferry as the sort of half-way point for many thru-hikers.
Under a government shutdown, all work on the Appalachian Trail, such as maintaining, operating, and policing the various sections, would be suspended by law. “So volunteers couldn’t do any work either,” says Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Manager at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) located in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
During the 2013 shutdown, the volunteers in parks program was suspended for the duration. People did not receive the same sort of insurance coverage they would have if the government had been open. A government shutdown puts those volunteers who ignore the directive at risk and liable for potential injuries sustained during maintenance work, such as removing fallen trees, which they would otherwise be covered for, Potteiger says.
The closing of national parks could also adversely affect the communities that surround them. During the government shutdown in 2013, the town of Harpers Ferry had to deal with parking headaches since many tourists came to the area anyway but couldn’t find places to park.
“The park maintains a large tourist parking area that was closed back in 2013,” says Gregory Vaughn, Mayor of Harpers Ferry. This parking area, known as Cavalier Heights, can hold a substantial amount of cars, allowing tourists to hitch a shuttle ride and go into town.
Vaughn said that during the 2013 shutdown, town businesses that rely on the tourist trade were open, but the federal buildings and museums located there were not. As a result, the state and local municipality lost a lot of revenue from taxes. Businesses in Harpers Ferry pay what’s called a business and occupation tax, or B & O tax. If you were to travel to Harpers Ferry and wanted to buy a T-shirt, for example, 6 percent of the tax on that shirt goes to the state while about 1 percent goes to the town.
“I’m sure the B & O taxes went down [during the 2013 shutdown],” says Vaughn. And of course businesses themselves lost revenue when tourists found out that government buildings were closed.
Military veterans and employees of the Veterans Administration (VA) would also be hard-hit by a prolonged government shutdown. The VA has a total of 27 locations in West Virginia and most of its employees would be considered non-essential and thus at risk of being furloughed during a shutdown.
Certain VA medical services and facilities, as well as some benefits and insurance payments would all be suspended under a shutdown. Only those services deemed critical for protection of life would remain available. Many of the 31,909 military veterans who are receiving benefits in the state could lose their benefits in a prolonged shutdown.
The FBI’s fingerprinting database, located in Clarksburg, is used by law enforcement around the country to investigate domestic and international crimes. The database, which processes about 50,000 fingerprints per day, would be closed during a shutdown, causing all non-essential employees there to be furloughed.
As for Aaron Whitacre, he’s just hoping for the best. The last time the government went into a shutdown, Whitacre had to use up vacation days in order to get paid while he was furloughed.
“Using my vacation time for the shutdown versus using it to spend time with my family was the worst feeling,” he says.