District officials have had a chance to take stock of the local impact of the 16-day shutdown of the federal government earlier this fall.
In spite of the delays in Medicaid payments, a $92,000 trash collection bill, and up to $6 million of lost tax revenue (per week), they agree the fallout could have been worse.
They say resilience and efficient management of a contingency fund helped keep city employees on the job and keep most city services operating during the Congressional deadlock over the federal budget.
And ultimately, there was a silver lining for the District in the temporary deal struck by federal lawmakers to end the shutdown.
While the city uses its own local funds to pay for essentials such as schools and public safety, under its home-rule charter, the District budget is normally subject to Congressional appropriation. But under the deal approved by Congress to end the shutdown, the District was granted virtual budget autonomy for Fiscal Year 2014, allowing it to spend local funds without the permission of Congress. The measure could help protect the city from some of the woes of another potential crisis on Capitol Hill in mid-January.
But it was not only the officials in the Wilson Building who had to steer through the financial uncertainties created by the shutdown. Local nonprofits and service providers, who often rely on public funding also had to find ways to keep their organizations up and running. They say the government shutdown offered useful lessons for the future: lessons that may help them provide services more efficiently – and use networking to enhance cooperation and communication.
The initial chaos of the shutdown that furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers, shuttered federal offices and programs, interrupted federal funding to local programs and created worries about the sustainability of city government services caused a wave of deep uncertainty in the local nonprofit community.
“We didn’t have any sense in the community about who was going to stay open and who was going to stay closed through the first couple of weeks of October, and we really had no idea what was going to happen if the local government shut down,” explained Susie Cambria, a consultant to nonprofits.
Local food banks and community resource centers struggled to find a common response to the looming freeze of the District’s daily operations, which would have exacerbated difficulties both for the smaller service providers – and the neighborhoods and individuals they serve.
“The concern was that services provided by the government might have to stop if the city shut down or eliminated services,” Cambria said. Therefore, it was vital for the community to prepare for budget shortfalls, while maximizing the reach of their services for the people in need.
Two meetings were convened. The first was held ten days into the shutdown. A second was held early in November. The gatherings were organized by Strengthening Ward One Together, the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative (CHSFSC), and Bread for the City. The purpose was to address the urgent need to improve networking between local service providers.
One effort they tried hinted at the core challenge for the nonprofit community to act in a concerted effort — especially, but not only, during crises like the shutdown.
“We did a map of organizations that were open, [but] we didn’t have very many who actually sent me their information to map,” Cambria says.
The attempt helped enforce an important message, though.
Timothea Howard, of CHSFSC had this to say:
“We have to have all the organizations plugged in, so that when the demand comes, we have infrastructure to go.” She said there is a need to collect as much info as possible about the individual providers, and feed it into a map or databases like 211 (www.211metrodc.org).
And even if the FY 2014 budget autonomy deal offers the District the ability to conduct business as usual in the event of another federal shutdown during the current fiscal year, there are plenty of other permanent or recurring challenges local service providers are facing, including the reductions in food stamps.
As of Nov. 1, the average family of three saw a drop of about $29 a month in food stamp benefits. The cut was due to the expiration of additional funding for the program provided by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The loss of assistance left families with roughly $1.40 per person to spend per meal. ANd more cuts may be on the horizon and federal budget battles continue.
“A lot of people are applying for eligibility status, and the food banks are packed,” said Howard. The loss has strained the budgets of already poor people to the breaking point she said. In addition to preparing for an influx of people seeking help, Howard noted, the challenge is one more reminder to service providers that they should network in order to make sure their clients get the right resources down the road, empowering them to eventually become independent again.
“You have to get people to understand the need for capacity building,” she says.
Susie Cambria singled out for praise two organizations which have been dedicated to efficient cooperation among nonprofits for years.
She said the Nonprofit Roundtable and Center for Nonprofit Advancement will continue to work for better cooperation among groups in the future.
“I clearly see them, both organizations, playing a role in figuring how to do this better in the future.”
For now, though, a sense remains that the recent government shutdown highlighted the lack of communication between the numerous service providers, nonprofits and agencies in the DC area, making it unnecessarily complicated at times for individuals or families to receive the right service at the right time.