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Government Shutdown: D.C. Workers, Services Hang In The Balance

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First Posted: 04/08/11 04:53 PM ET Updated: 06/08/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- If the Obama administration and House leadership can’t strike a budget deal within the next few hours, here are just a few things that won’t be happening in the District of Columbia next week: trash collection, road repair, parking enforcement, traffic management, license and registration renewal, street sweeping and library book checkout.

In another threat to the local economy, roughly 14,000 of the District's 35,000 public employees would be told to stay home, not yet knowing when, or if, they’d be paid for the missed work. This is in spite of the fact that they’re employed by the city and draw salaries funded mostly by local dollars. Congress, which still technically appropriates tax dollars to the District, has to sign off on the city's budget -- a peculiar rule held over from before it was granted home rule in 1973.

Congress' control of city purse strings infuriates many locals, not least of all Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s non-voting member of Congress. In a television interview yesterday, Norton said Washington workers and residents were “being treated as colonists of the Congress” and that the shutdown’s potential impact on the city would be “the functional equivalent of bombing innocent civilians.” She topped it off by saying D.C. residents should tell Congress “to go straight to hell.”

The city’s mayor, Vincent C. Gray, has posted a plan online detailing which agencies would be affected and which services would be cut back or eliminated. In an online chat on the Washington Post’s website today, Gray also sounded a defiant, if more restrained, note. He said the shutdown threat is an “injustice” that has left him “outraged.”

“We steadfastly believe that the District of Columbia Government should not be included in this shutdown and we have been fighting to have the entire city exempted,” Gray wrote. “We are not an agency of the federal government.”

Even though the city’s cops, firefighters and teachers would continue punching in, a huge swath of the city’s public-works employees and administrative workers would temporarily be out of a job if a federal budget can’t be agreed upon.

The city’s transportation department, for instance, has roughly a thousand workers, many of them doing infrastructural work around town like fixing potholes, repairing sidewalks and laying down speed bumps. All of that has been deemed “non-essential,” along with more urgent-sounding work, like directing traffic. The city’s major construction projects -- such as bridge and roadway repairs -- could also ground to a halt.

"Some, if not most, of our projects will shut down," department spokesman John Lisle told The Huffington Post.

As little as a quarter of the transportation department’s workers will be told to come to work in the event of a shutdown, and the vast majority of the still-employed will be school crossing guards, he said.

“It’s a real difficult time for people. They’ve got families and responsibilities,” Lisle said. “Not knowing whether they’re going to lose income or exactly what’s going to happen -- it’s tough.”

Similarly, the city’s Department of Public Works would operate in a skeleton capacity. The agency has 1,400 workers, many of them trash collectors and parking-enforcement officers. According to agency spokeswoman Linda Grant, the “vast majority” of them would be told to take an unscheduled leave of absence.

Even though some people might relish the idea of the agency’s ticketing squad taking some time off, residents would probably miss the street sweepers and garbage collectors, who would also get furloughed.

“Those are things that affect people every day,” Grant said. In the event of a shutdown, trash collection would be suspended for up to a week, at which point it would be reinstituted out of public-health concerns.

A few D.C. residents, outraged at the prospect of garbage accruing around town, have launched the Facebook group "If Boehner shuts down the government I am taking my trash to his house." In part to highlight the city's congressional disenfranchisement, the organizers will lead protestors to Boehner’s Capitol Hill residence tomorrow morning -- though they urge attendees not to bring “lots of dirty, gross trash.”

The workers, who may soon find themselves with unpaid time off, won’t be spending it at any of the District’s more than two dozen libraries, all of which would be closed during a shutdown. Adult literacy classes, tax preparation assistance, computer courses –- all of it would be nixed. The online library catalog would go dark at midnight tonight, along with all of its associated online services, including its website for job seekers.

Agency spokesperson George Williams said the city's 416 library workers “are focusing on what this is going to mean for the public, for people who’ve checked out books and people who are coming to story time. They’re trying not to worry about themselves.” The closures, he added, would have employment implications for more than just library workers.

“For some people in the public, the library computers are their only computers,” Williams said. “The library is the place where they access the internet. This is where they come to look for jobs.”

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