Impact from government shutdown ripples across Malheur County

More than 100 BLM employees have been out of work since December because of the government shutdown. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Thursday morning a single light in a corner office illuminated an otherwise dark interior at the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management.

No one has been at work in the building since December.

That’s when the partial government shutdown locked up the biggest federal employer in Malheur County and sent more than 105 people home indefinitely.

They join a large number of federal employees across the country who have been out of work since Dec. 22 as President Trump and Democrats argue over funding to build about a 200-mile barrier along the U.S. and Mexican border. 

Locally, the shutdown’s influence is rippling through the county in subtle and not so subtle ways.

The biggest impact has been on the BLM employees and the Farm Services Agency in Ontario.

The Farm Service Agency employs nine people, most of whom were off work until this week, when the doors to the agency reopened– but only for a short time.

A central hub for federal loans to local farmers, the agency announced this week it will be open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for two more weeks.

After that, with no end to the shutdown in sight, it’s unclear what the hours will be and whether services will be available.

The announcement comes at an important time for farmers. From November to April, many farmers seek loans to cover operating costs.

On Jan. 17 the agency recalled some of its employees to start processing loan payments and starting today local farmers can get access to direct and emergency loans. The agency’s employees who are came back today are working unpaid.

“We haven’t been able to issue commodity checks and that is really bad because (farmers) haven’t been paid for any supplies or services,” said John Mills, the farm loan manager for the agency.

The level of disruption for farmers and the community remains to be seen, he said.

Chris Rich, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said the 105 furloughed BLM employees will push the county’s unemployment rate up slightly.

Using March 2018 employment data, Rich said if you factor in the 105 out-of-work BLM employees, the unemployment rate will climb by .8 percentage points.

Rich used the March 2018 data because it represents a period less affected by seasonal workers.

The 105 BLM workers stand in contrast to Multnomah County, where more than 3,000 federal employees are on indefinite furlough, said Rich.

Some local farmers say the shutdown so far has been just an inconvenience.

“At this point that is all it has really been,” said local sugar beet farmer Bruce Corn.

Corn and other sugar beet growers, though, did see delayed payments from Amalgamated Sugar Company on their last crop because of the shutdown.

Amalgamated Sugar Company usually uses Department of Agriculture loans to pay its growers. The shutdown cut off that avenue of financing.

“While payments were late, growers were still paid,” said Jessica McAnally, communication specialist for Amalgamated Sugar.

Doug Maag, a Vale-area beet farmer and a member of the sugar company’s board of directors, said there was about a two-week delay on payments.  

“We have a financially strong background so we went and did our own financing,” said Maag.

Amalgamated Sugar in Nampa has an annual payroll of about $22 million and when its plant is going full speed, it produces 1,000 tons a sugar a day.

Stuart Reitz, county extension agent, said the shutdown’s impact will be residual, especially in areas of herbicide and pesticide registration.

“That isn’t an immediate concern but, again, it is one of those things the longer it goes on, the more fouled up the whole process is,” he said.

Reitz said if a new herbicide or pesticide is developed that could help farmers, it first must be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. During the shutdown, the EPA isn’t doing any work to register new herbicides or pesticides, he said.

“If EPA is on the sidelines, it bogs down the entire system. There may not always be a new product used on crops in this area, but in the big scheme of things, if there is some silver bullet out there and it can’t get put to use, it may not affect this growing season but it will the next growing season and on down the line,” said Reitz.

He said he is “frustrated” by the shutdown.

The shutdown hit Ontario Mayor Riley Hill’s pocketbook, too.

“It affects me personally because a lot of my rent monies come from the federal government,” said Hill.

A contractor, Hill maintains about 120 units subsidized by the federal government in the Treasure Valley. Hill said the units he manages include apartments, houses and a care facility in Caldwell.

“So those checks won’t come,” said Hill.

Hill said he’ll survive but he wonders what happens to those who depend on government loans and grants to do business.

Chris Christensen, former president of the Malheur Cattlemen’s Association and now a state association vice president, said the beef industry hasn’t been impacted by the shutdown.

“I don’t know of anything. It won’t impact grazing, or at least federal grazing anyway. There are still people who still have cattle out on winter permits,” said Christensen.

Don Hodge, Malheur County commissioner, said he supports President Trump but is uneasy with so many federal employees out of work.

“I agree with the wall, we need to do something. But there are too many people out of work. People shouldn’t have to miss their mortgage payments, and I hate to see those people suffering,” he said.

Dan Capron, Ontario city councilor, said there would not be a shutdown if there were term limits on lawmakers.

“We’d have new ideas then. This is just a money-making game now,” said Capron.

Capron said he is concerned that there is a battle over the wall when the nation’s deficit – now at about $779 billion – is ignored.

“And we are arguing over a $5 billion fence?” said Capron.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said the battle between President Trump and Democrats over border wall funding could be solved quickly.

“Why doesn’t he just do a national emergency and get it done?” said Joyce. “I know the poor man doesn’t get any support.”

President Trump recently pondered declaring a national emergency to build the wall but then backed away from that idea.