Washington state

Area impact could be dire if state government shuts down, officials say

When a storage tank near Sunnyside failed in March, spilling more than 1,000 gallons of used motor oil into a creek and polluting the Yakima River, the state Department of Ecology in Yakima promptly dispatched experts to the scene.

But if state government shuts down July 1, after the end of the fiscal year at midnight June 30, due to the ongoing operating and capital budget impasse in the Legislature, no one from the Yakima Ecology office will be available to respond to similar emergencies. All 130 Ecology employees in the Yakima-based central regional office – which is also responsible for six other counties – will have been laid off without pay.

A single spill-response official in Lacey will be responsible for the entire state.

County, federal and tribal emergency responders could likely respond to such incidents, including this week’s possible chemical leak at a Selah fruit packing plant that sent 37 workers to the hospital. But the scenario of an inadequate response is plausible.

“We were first on scene once SVID (Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District) called us about finding oil in the ditch, with the Yakama Nation responding quickly, too,” said Ecology’s spokeswoman based in Yakima, Joye Redfield-Wilder. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she noted, is in Seattle and usually does not respond to local incidents unless their assistance is specifically requested.

From environmental regulation to recreation, pesticide waste disposal to some public health functions such as tracking food-borne illnesses, there will be an impact locally if a state government shutdown happens. Some legislative leaders are talking about a resolution that would extend the current budget by one month, giving them more time to reach a budget deal.

While it’s not known how many of the 2,700 state employees in Yakima County would be laid off, even the temporary loss of more than 26,000 people in Olympia and other parts of the state would reverberate here.

For example, the Legislature appropriates funds for Ecology to provide grants to irrigation districts that need to build emergency drought infrastructure. The agency has shifted some funds internally to help farmers drill emergency wells in the Yakima Basin, but without the $9 million requested for drought relief, that help would be limited.

The state Department of Labor and Industries, which handles a variety of tasks including investigations of workplace accidents, would close all 19 offices, including the one with 65 employees on Yakima Avenue downtown. The agency would cease processing new worker compensation claims, which are filed at a rate of about 2,000 per week statewide.

“It could really impact people’s lives,” said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for Labor and Industries.

Public safety positions would be spared, including Washington State Patrol officers, who are paid from the transportation budget, which has already passed the Legislature. A few patrol office-related positions funded by the operating budget, however, would be vacant.

The state Department of Transportation, for example, with about 300 employees in the county, would not be affected, according to the state Office of Financial Management, which has agency shutdown contingency plans posted on its website.

The Department of Social and Health Services would have to suspend more than a dozen programs, including cash assistance for aged, blind or disabled people, low-income pregnant women, legal immigrants and some temporary and emergency assistance payments. Food services for older adults, commonly known as meals-on-wheels, would also disappear.

Services like the Washington Telephone Assistance program, seasonal child care payments, job self-sufficiency assistance, and supervision for youth recently released from juvenile detention facilities would be affected.

Locally, at the Yakima Valley School in Selah, home to the developmentally disabled, staff who provide direct care would not be subject to layoffs, DSHS spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said. But bookkeepers and some maintenance and operations workers have received temporary layoff notices. She could not specify how many received notices.

Medicaid-funded services such as in-home services and adult day health would continue with or without a shutdown because of federal funding, as would the foster care, adoption support and behavioral rehabilitation group home programs under the Children’s Administration. However, only emergency response and intake would be operational within Child Protective Services.

The prospect of shuttered state parks would affect the plans of Jim Kester and his wife, Helen, who planned to stay at Sportsman State Park off of University Parkway in Terrace Heights until July 2. But if there’s a shutdown, they’ll have to cut their stay short by two days.

The Kesters use their RV as a primary home and often stay at the park for 10 days at a time. They imagine any shutdown would cause much grief for a lot of campers.

“This is a pretty busy park,” Jim Kester said. “From May to September, it’s pretty busy. You can’t get a reservation.”

The state Department of Agriculture would face fewer losses in the face of a shutdown. The agency, which derives only 20 percent of its budget from the general fund, would keep all but about 100 of its 750 employees, said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the department.

Produce inspections, done at warehouses before fruits and vegetables are loaded onto trucks, would continue because the service is paid for primarily by industry fees and assessments.

However, dairy nutrient management inspections would be suspended, according to a list published on the department’s website. Staff would still respond to emergencies.

The department also would suspend food bank assistance, pesticide waste collections, international marketing assistance and plant protection.

At the state Department of Health, two staff members who inspect temporary farm worker housing would not continue to be available, said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the department. It’s a busy time of year for migrant labor as seasonal laborers arrive from California, Texas or other countries on foreign guest worker visas for stone-fruit harvest.

The department would not have the staff to investigate viruses and other pathogens that travel from animals to people, such as West Nile virus, a mosquito-born illness. A sample of mosquitoes in eastern Yakima County tested positive Thursday for West Nile virus.

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