Inside NoVa: Northern Virginia households, local business are collateral damage in government shutdown, leaders say

INSIDE NOVA, BEN PETERS

A potential government shutdown could spell disaster for many in Prince William County.

Congress is barreling toward a Sept. 30 midnight deadline to adopt a spending measure to continue funding for federal agencies that employ 38,000 Prince William residents, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by the county. Nearly 370,000 federal workers are employed in the Washington, D.C., metro area, not including the more than 400,000 government contractors who could also lose work in the event of a shutdown.

While local leaders acknowledge the shutdown would hurt households that rely on paychecks from the federal government for survival, the potential challenges posed for Prince William reach far deeper. It could have dire downstream consequences for local businesses if large swaths of Northern Virginians are out of work and not spending money.

Bob Sweeney, CEO of the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,300 businesses and is the largest of its kind in Virginia, said the trickle down effect of a shutdown on local business will be “devastating.”

“This is gonna kill us,” he said. “And it’s a GOP problem. I don’t understand them right now. They are thinking about themselves, their political futures I guess, but they’re holding the country and Virginia hostage.”

“Our most vulnerable industries are the ones that are going to be the hardest hit,” Sweeney said. “It’s just completely backwards, some people that claim to be business-minded doing this. It’s just not right.”

Pushing the shutdown is a faction of conservative lawmakers bargaining for significant spending cuts and other demands, while also threatening Republican Speaker U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s job as speaker.

“Speaker McCarthy needs to stop catering to a tiny fringe of his House GOP majority and start working — quickly — in a bipartisan way to keep the government open,” U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberber said in a statement to InsideNova on Tuesday. “Shutdowns are bad for Prince William’s federal employees, servicemembers, small businesses, and federal contractors.”

The Democratic congresswoman who represents Prince William continued, “This county knows from past experiences just how damaging these shutdowns are to our economy — and the Virginians I represent, many of whom are career public servants, do not deserve to be used as pawns in political theater.”

Local impact

Patrick Sowers, a Realtor with Woodbridge-based TeamSowers and a nearly lifelong Prince William resident, said a shutdown could “devastate” the housing market in Northern Virginia, as well as his business and personal finances.

“I’m not a government person, but let’s face it: We live in Prince William County, the majority of folks here are government employees or military, so if they’re unable to [purchase a home], that freezes my income,” Sowers said.

It would also prevent veterans from using U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs loans to purchase homes since the agency would be shut down, he said.

Gainesville resident Jessi Lightfoot, an analyst for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, said being furloughed would severely affect her family’s ability to make ends meet. 

Lightfoot, who is deaf and visually impaired, said her disabilities make it very difficult to find short-term work she could perform in the meantime while furloughed, which she said many colleagues did during the 2019 shutdown that became the longest in U.S. history. 

Lightfoot’s husband is a county employee, and Lightfoot said her being out of work would force them to rely solely on his income.

“Even though we depend on both incomes for the three kids that we have … [if the government were to shut down again] it would be very difficult,” Lightfoot said through a sign language interpreter.

She recalled the community banding together in 2019 to help one another amid what was a financial hardship for many.

“I’m hoping that the community will pull together again, and I guess that’s the best I can say on a positive note. You know, we do live in a wonderful community that tends to help each other,” she said through the interpreter.

According to a memo circulated among Prince William officials, a shutdown would create short-term impacts to the county’s general revenue since the local sales tax, food and beverage tax and transient occupancy tax revenue will most likely decline. 

The memo noted that the Board of County Supervisors recent move to delay the car tax deadline for residents was a precautionary measure to help some save money in the interim. Personal property taxes are typically due in October, but residents will now have until Jan. 3, 2024, to make a payment.

Growing uncertainty

While federal government agencies have contingency plans in the event of a shutdown, few details on those measures are currently available to county agencies, according to the memo, leaving localities in the dark. Based on prior shutdowns in 2013 and 2019, some federal agencies were able to continue short-term funding for a few months for expenditures related to schools, housing and social services using remaining funding from previous years.

If the government closes, mandatory spending programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will continue. But some services could be impacted, such as the issuance of new Social Security cards or delays in verifying benefits, and service levels of essential programs could be affected, according to the county memo.

A 2019 law approved following the most recent government shutdown guarantees backpay for non-essential furloughed employees when a shutdown ends. Essential employees required to work were already guaranteed backpay prior to the 2019 legislation.

But the new law does not guarantee backpay for federal contractors, a major economic driver in Northern Virginia.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, introduced legislation Wednesday to change the annual government funding deadline from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 to better align with when Congress passes year-long funding bills, according to a news release.

“A government shutdown not only impacts those near Washington, D.C.,” Kaine said in the release. “It has real, tangible consequences for millions of people across Virginia and America and would be devastating for our economy. Those in Congress who are suggesting otherwise are wrong. In Virginia, 127,124 women and children are at risk of not receiving vital nutrition assistance during a government shutdown. We can and should prevent this from happening by passing a bipartisan bill to fund the government as soon as possible.” 

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