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Glacier Shutdown 3

A cross-country skier heads out from Lake McDonald Lodge onto Going-to-the-Sun Road on Saturday. The famous highway's central stretch is closed to traffic for much of the winter.

Security operations remain intact at Missoula International Airport and some local lending institutions are offering remedies to the financial strain of federal workers as the government shutdown passed Day 18 on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, doors remain locked and parking lots all but deserted at U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offices at Fort Missoula. The Missoula Food Bank is reaching out to furloughed employees or those working without pay and casting a wary eye to February, when funding for food stamps could be depleted if the shutdown lingers that long.

And the Office of Public Instruction in Helena received word Tuesday afternoon that federal school lunch programs could run out of money in March.

Some 173 Transportation Security Administration officers across Montana have been working without pay since the shutdown began, according to Dave Kuntz, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Airport director Cris Jensen said it’s hard to put a number on TSA workers at Missoula International, though he guessed it to be around 50. Some are seasonal and some are in New York working at JFK Airport as part of a national deployment force.

But those assigned to Missoula are still showing up for work.

“They continue to do their jobs and they still do it with a smile, providing a high level of customer service,” Jensen said. “While we’re worried about the future, we’re not seeing impacts on the airport operations yet.”

The Missoula airport provides security through TSA workers rather than with private contractors as in Bozeman and Kalispell. Jensen said he isn’t sure how the shutdown is affecting those airports.

On Tuesday, the Missoula Federal Credit Union, the state’s second largest credit union with more than 50,000 members, rolled out an emergency loan plan for federal employees and said its loan servicing teams are “showing maximum sensitivity and flexibility” when collecting payments. That can include waiving late fees, allowing skipped loan payments and “pushing loan extension and forbearance possibilities as far as we can,” said Jack Lawson, the credit union’s president and chief executive officer.

The emergency loan is equal to a month’s gross pay up to $5,000, with no payment required for 90 days.

Lawson said members can take advantage of MFCU’s full-time financial counselor, who for no cost will help them “think through” financial challenges they’re facing.

“We have a mission, which is to be a force for good in banking and in the lives of our members and we see this as a very mission-driven activity, to try to help our members get through this period of financial pain,” Lawson said.

Stockman Bank of Montana, which has two locations in Missoula and 34 across the state, implemented a plan on Jan. 2 to assist federal employees impacted by the shutdown.

Bill Bickle, chief credit officer in Billings, said Stockman is offering to defer loan payments until the shutdown ends, to restructure debts after that, and to work with commercial customers impacted on a case-by-case basis.

“Government shutdowns are very stressful for workers who still have bills to pay,” Bickle said in a press release. “We are happy to make accommodations for impacted federal employees to help reduce stress and protect their credit.”

Parts of the federal government shut down three days before Christmas after Congress and the White House failed to reach a spending deal that included President Donald Trump's demand for more than $5 billion to build a wall on the southern border.

With 1,500 federal employees for every 100,000 workers, Montana is feeling the pinch more than any state except Alaska and Maryland, according to a report Monday in the Washington Post.

The Missoula Food Bank hasn’t seen a noticeable rise in demand yet.

“Obviously, if this drags on I think there are some predictable impacts looking at our friends working in, say, the Forest Service industry, many of whom have been furloughed,” executive director Aaron Brock said.

He said some “internally organized resource lists” are coming together to let those impacted by the shutdown know how the food bank works and when it’s open. Like everyone else, they’re welcome to use the new food bank facility on Wyoming Street and won’t be asked to provide identification or income status.

“I think different communities do it differently,” said Brock. “In Missoula our board has been very intentional going back 35-plus years in trying to break down any semblance of barriers and making sure we’re accessible.”

Brock said funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) wasn’t on his radar until a local television crew showed up Monday to ask him about it.

Now, he said, “we’re watching that closely.”

“There’s a definition of essential and nonessential services, and frankly I don’t know where those lines are drawn,” Brock said. “There’s nothing much more essential than food.”

The Washington Post reported Friday said the Trump administration recognized only last week the breadth of the shutdown’s potential impact, including $140 billion in tax refunds as well as SNAP benefits for 38 million low-income Americans, should the shutdown showdown stretch into February.

Congress hasn’t funded SNAP beyond January, and the Post report said emergency reserves “would not cover even two-thirds of February’s payments, according to past disbursements.”

“That would affect thousands of people in Missoula,” Brock said. “There’d be the impact on the food bank but more than that, the impact on Missoula and Montana and the nation would be devastating. SNAP is this country’s first line of defense against food insecurity.”

The Department of Education is fully funded through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2019), so public school programs such as Title I and Special Education aren’t impacted by the shutdown.

But the money for school nutrition programs such as free and reduced lunches come from the Department of Agriculture, said Dylan Klapmeier of the Office of Public Instruction. Klapmeier forwarded a message late Tuesday from Cheryl Kennedy, acting regional administrator for Food and Nutrition Service.

Kennedy said money provided under the terms of the prior continuing resolution will make it possible for FNS to fund child nutrition programs at least through January.

“FNS has provided state agencies with additional available appropriated funding,” Kennedy wrote. “These funds, along with those previously provided, can support program operations at normal levels well into the month of March.”

Klapmeier said a resolution to the shutdown "should be reached well before it would impact school foods programs.''

"But we would, of course, keep schools and the public updated if we became concerned about funding for those programs,” he added.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian