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Government shutdown causes uncertainty across Tampa Bay

Like a bad flu bug, the federal government shutdown's worst effects might take a little time to fully develop.

That's the message across Tampa Bay and Florida after a week of the government shutdown. Many agencies and nonprofits that rely on Uncle Sam's wallet say they have so far largely weathered the storm.

But if the shutdown drags on for weeks, officials say, the impact will severely hamper government and threaten the area's most vulnerable residents.

"Everybody who is getting a check from the federal government should be worried," said Jerome Ryans, president of the Tampa Housing Authority. "We can get through a few weeks. But if we're talking about a few months, then you've got trouble."

Ryans said his agency has enough cash so it is unaffected now. But at some point — he isn't sure when — he said the authority will run out of money to reimburse landlords who house 7,500 tenants with subsidized housing.

The shutdown is made all the worse coming after the across-the-board, forced federal budget cuts of last fiscal year.

In Pinellas County, administrators of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, have been trying to reassure some of the 18,000 mothers they serve that formula for infants, food and breast-feeding support are still available.

WIC has enough funding to continue issuing food vouchers at its seven Pinellas County locations for now, said Maggie Hall, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas. But any reserves won't last indefinitely.

"With food, there are no options," Hall said. "If you don't to go to the Lincoln Memorial today, that's one thing. If you can't feed your baby, that's a different thing."

With the start of Central Florida's citrus harvest weeks away, temporary visa applications for migrant workers are being held up at a U.S. Department of Labor processing facility in Chicago, industry officials say. That threatens the state's $9 billion citrus industry and other crops.

"We are tight," said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry group. "We need something to happen very soon."

At H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and USF Health, the shutdown has added yet more uncertainty to future research projects.

One of the largest sources of funding for research in its initial stages, the National Institutes of Health, has no administrative staff to process grant applications that are due now, said John DeMuro, Moffitt's director of federal government affairs. What's more, he said, NIH has been canceling meetings of the panels of scientists who review applications.

"As it continues longer, there'll be a pretty significant backlog and the awards will be delayed," he said. "The biggest area where Moffitt is affected is it's going to slow down the review of grants."

Dr. Stephen Liggett, vice dean for research at the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine, said researchers have to buy equipment and assemble teams before they can investigate ideas that may one day evolve into clinical trials.

Without the go-ahead of a research grant, he said, "the idea gets cold. You end up being less productive and you can never catch up."

About 1,500 furloughed civilian workers at MacDill Air Force Base started returning to work Monday after the Pentagon said their salaries were covered by a law passed by Congress a week ago.

But more than $100 million in military contracts at MacDill with local and national defense firms are frozen, a situation that will worsen with time, according to the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance.

Mid-Florida Community Services, the nonprofit group that runs 17 Head Start centers in Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties, planned to use its line of credit to keep the sites running this week, said Mid-Florida executive director Michael Georgini.

But a private donor in Texas provided a $10 million emergency grant Monday, guaranteeing benefits to 7,000 at-risk children in seven states, including Florida.

Jamie and John Mahan, who work for the National Park Service at the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee, applied for unemployment benefits after they were furloughed last week.

"We can't go weeks and weeks without income," said Jamie Mahan.

It's unclear how many federal workers have applied for compensation. But the timing couldn't be worse. The state is revamping its unemployment system and will close its website Wednesday through Monday. The state has hired 250 people to deal with the expected backlog.

Staff writers Patty Ryan, Rich Shopes, Brittany Alana Davis, Jodie Tillman, Tony Marrero, Marlene Sokol, Andrew Meacham, Stephanie Hayes, Richard Danielson and Keyonna Summers contributed.

Government shutdown causes uncertainty across Tampa Bay 10/07/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 4:19pm]

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