www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/harford/aberdeen-havre-de-grace/ph-ag-federal-shutdown-1002-20130930,0,6201905.story

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Federal government shutdown likely to impact Harford

The longer it goes, the worse it will get, county economic development head says

BY BRYNA ZUMER and KRISHANA DAVIS, bzumer@theaegis.com, kdavis@baltsun.com

5:14 PM EDT, October 1, 2013

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The impact of the federal government shutdown Tuesday is likely to have an impact well beyond the boundaries of Aberdeen Proving Ground and the 23,000 civilians, contractors and uniformed military who work at the military installation.

Not only is APG Harford County's largest employment center, but the closure of federal offices and agencies in the wake of a nasty political fight in Washington, would directly and indirectly affect thousands of other Harford County area residents.

A number of activities at APG are still functioning, regardless of the impasse between Congress and President Obama over the federal budget, local and federal officials said; however, the impact to the local economy if the stalemate continues is problematic.

APG spokesman Kelly Luster said some of the roughly 90 organizations on post are exempt from the potential shutdown because they have other funding sources besides tax dollars. In addition, specific missions related to "life, health and safety" could be exempt, he said.

"It is unlikely the installation would shut down completely," Luster said via e-mail Monday. "APG plays an integral part in ensuring our service members, who stand in harm's way, continue to be properly equipped and ready. Additionally, the safety and security of our employees and their families is paramount."

He said the post has been working to keep its employees informed about the latest news on the federal stand-off.

"As leadership receives information related to the potential shutdown, we pass it along to our employees through every means possible," he said. "We hope for the best in that our representatives in Congress resolve the situation, but are prepared for the worst case in that the shutdown cannot be avoided."

"With an installation of this size and the number of organizations and employees, it's difficult to identify who is doing what to prepare for a potential shutdown," Luster continued. "However, we are doing the most important thing and that is keeping our workforce informed. As I stated previously, some organizations and missions will be exempt from a shutdown."

The scores of defense contractors with offices in Harford are more likely to feel any impact from a shutdown later on, Jim Richardson, the county's economic development director, said Monday.

"More important is the uncertainty and the amount of dysfunction in D.C.," Richardson said. "There may be some passing effects [to contractors] but I think it's too early to tell. It depends how long this goes."

Mood 'really low'

Nikki Macomber, 40, of Aberdeen, a federal contract employee at APG is not working during the government shutdown. A data collector for the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center for nearly 13 years, she said she is prepared for the worst.

"The mood here is really low and it has been for quite some time," Macomber said Monday. "First there was the furlough, then layoffs and now with the pending government shutdown people are really on edge here."

Macomber said most of the government personnel who work for the Aberdeen Test Center are eligible for retroactive pay once the gridlock in Congress has been resolved. But as a contractor, she is being forced to rely on her personal leave.

"The main things we all feel here is frustration," Macomber said. "The federal government isn't doing their job, but they are still getting paid. If I wasn't doing my job, they would let me go."

Battelle, a science and technology company with about 150 employees at Aberdeen's Higher Education and Technology Center and 36 working on post, planned to shuffle around employees who couldn't go to their government offices Tuesday.

"We are like everybody else. We have been monitoring the situation and developing contingency plans," company spokeswoman Katy Delaney said. "We are telling people, when you leave today, just take your lap top and be ready to work from a different location."

About 7,000 people work directly for government contractors in the county, Richardson said, noting that the number never reached the 18,000 projected as a result of the previous decade's BRAC realignment that favored APG.

"It's been pretty stable because while companies have lost contracts, we have had other companies come in, so basically we have been playing a bit of musical chairs," he said. "I just hope that we get it all worked out on the federal level."

Long term woes

The possibility of an extended crisis is what could spook contractors in the long run, Richardson warned. That, coupled with the recent federal furloughs, could affect business decisions and future contracts and, ultimately, whether a particular contractor stays in Harford, he said.

Battelle's Delaney said of the situation: "We don't like it, that's for sure. Some of the work we do is so important that it's not touched by this, such as labs for the national Department of Energy."

If circumstances stay dicey, however, "we could start seeing some stop-work orders," she said.

As the shutdown loomed Monday, Harford County Executive David Craig took the opportunity to blast the federal Affordable Health Care Act as the root cause of the federal budget stalemate.

Craig, a Republican who is running for governor, said Maryland's cheapest "Obamacare" plan will still cost 83 percent more than the cheapest plan sold in the state this year.

"The Affordable Care Act has become a flash point in Congressional negotiations to continue government operations and for good reason. The unpleasant surprise with this law is that it's not really affordable at all," Craig said in a statement.

"People are struggling with the worst economic recovery in our lifetimes, have faced down record tax, fee and toll increases, and now they are forced to pay 83 [percent] higher insurance costs," the statement continued. "This is a massive health care tax politicians are attempting to brand as something else, and they are forcing people to buy it."

Despite the political posturing, even at the local level, Aberdeen Mayor Michael E. Bennett said most residents do not have anything to fear immediately.

"I'm sure there will be some impact, but not necessarily right away," Bennett, a Democrat, said. "Our employees won't be affected and we won't lay anyone off."

Bennett said the city will continue to provide "essential services," such as water and sewage service to Aberdeen Proving Ground, which contracts with the city for the service. He said some federal run services may be impacted, but overall he said the city is prepared to deal with the Capitol Hill fallout.

Businesses gird for impact

Harford area businesses also are trying to anticipate how the outcome of federal budget negotiations may adversely impact their revenues.

An assistant manager of Panera Bread in Aberdeen, about five minutes from APG's main employee and contractor entrance, said a government shutdown would be "devastating."

John Deveau, who has been a manager at Panera for about one year, said the last government furlough, resulting from earlier Washington budget battles, affected sales at the bakery and cafe.

"You didn't even have to look at the sales to see the impact," Deveau said. "It was noticeably different. You could just look around the cafe and see the difference. The place was empty."

Howard Klein, spokesperson for Klein's ShopRite in Aberdeen, said the grocery store has not put any measures in place to deal with the potential stall in government funding. Klein, whose company has half a dozen supermarkets in Harford, said they will continue "business as usual."

Speaking at a White House press conference late Monday afternoon, Obama said a shutdown would "throw a wrench into the gears" in the economy struggling to recover, "putting the American people's hard earned progress in jeopardy."

During the government shutdown, citizens will still receive social services, Medicare and unemployment checks. Postal services and non-federal run passport offices would still run and many government employees such as air traffic controllers, prison guards and border controllers would continue to work, but would see a delay in their paychecks.

But the President also warned other government agencies such as the NASA and historic attractions, like the Smithsonian Museum, will go dark.

Obama said Congress will not be able to use the budget negotiations and the threat of the government shutdown to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.

"The Affordable Care Act is moving forward and you can't shut it down," he said.