By CATHY BUSSEWITZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As budget talks moved slowly Thursday in Washington, federal employees in Sonoma County and throughout the country braced for the possibility that the government may shut down this weekend.
Thanks to their essential military or safety roles, many federal employees in Sonoma County will be spared from unpaid furloughs. But others may have to face the news that they may be sent home or their paychecks delayed.
There are about 1,600 federal employees working in Sonoma County, according to the Office of Personnel Management Federal Employment Statistics and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Exactly how many workers will be impacted is difficult to say, because each department has different rules about what roles are essential.
The Postal Service employs the most, with 1,179 workers and they will be spared the budgetary pain.
“We’re unaffected by the shutdown because we receive no tax dollars,” said Jim Wigdel, spokesman for the Postal Service. Mail deliveries and services will continue as usual.
But taxpayers looking for help filing their 2010 papers, due in about a week, may have a hard time getting their questions answered because those offices are likely to close if a shutdown does occur.
Field representatives at the IRS office on Sonoma Avenue were busy Thursday helping the public navigate deductions and forms, but they would not answer questions about the federal shutdown and did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Tom Sullivan of Santa Rosa was there to ask for tax information.
“It’s ridiculous,” Sullivan said. “They’ve got jobs to do, and they just want to make their jobs more important than everybody else’s.”
Officials in Washington also were frustrated by the potential shutdown. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said his staff members are likely to work without pay if there is a shutdown.
Salaries of lawmakers and the president are paid automatically without interuption.
But Thompson said he would have voted to forego his pay during a shutdown if the bill had made it to a vote.
“I believe that part of our responsibility is to minimize chaos, and I’m not sure that all the new folks here agree with that,” Thompson said. “A chaotic situation is bad for everything. It’s bad for people trying to get Medicare, it’s bad for people trying to sign up for Social Security, it’s bad for the business climate … it’s just not a good way to run our government.”
Planes will still be directed to safely land at airports. The Federal Aviation Administration plans to retain all the employees necessary to keep national airspace operating safely, but some of that division’s functions would be suspended, including aircraft certification and most budget and administrative activities, a spokesman said.
Health-related programs that assist veterans through the Department of Veteran Affairs would operate without disruption.
The Rohnert Park office, which provides readjustment counseling for combat veterans, will stay open, said Robert Fisher, office manager.
“Veterans affairs in Sonoma County is part of the hospital, so we’re considered essential,” Fisher said.
The Santa Rosa Clinic, which provides an array of medical and mental health services and employs more than 90 people, also will stay open, according to spokeswoman Judy Cheari.
Boaters off Bodega Bay can rest assured that Coast Guard stations will be operating no matter what.
“As a military organization, all of our search and rescue, law enforcement, and environmental response missions should continue as normal,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rick Foster.
The 300 employees at the Coast Guard Training Center in Petaluma also will continue working, said Patrick Montgomery, Coast Guard public affairs officer.
He said he did not know whether their paychecks would be delayed.
The Agriculture Department office in Petaluma will close if there is a shutdown, said Lisa Velasquez, county executive director.
Two employees would be sent home without pay, and their program that provides financial aid to farmers hit by intense weather in 2009 would be delayed.
“The longer it goes, the worse it will be,” Velasquez said.
A janitor in the federal building on Sonoma Avenue was resigned to leave her fate in the hands of a higher power.
“If that happens, I just go along with God, and I don’t stress out,” she said. “It’s pretty scary though.”