“Friends and neighbors:” Missoula County to help federal employees endure shutdown

TSA agents work the screening line at Missoula International Airport. The airport has arranged assistance for airport agents and Missoula County will do the same in a resource clinic expected to take place next week. (Missoula Current file photo)

With the government shutdown now in its 31st day and Congress locked in a partisan stalemate, Missoula County is looking for ways it can help federal workers get by in the short term.

The solutions discussed Tuesday by commissioners ranged from offering county-backed loans to federal workers to treating the shutdown and its impacts as a regular natural disaster.

Either way, commissioners and county staff are looking for ways to reach out and help furloughed workers, and those working without pay.

“The BLM, the Forest Service and other federal workers here in Missoula are our neighbors, friends and family members,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “If ever there was an opportunity for local government to step up and do what we can to help, it seems like now is the time.”

Among the ideas broached Tuesday, the county could postpone vehicle registration fees as they come due, and it could consider offering county-backed loans to federal employees using proceeds from land sales. But that solution raised questions of legality, though it hasn’t been fully eliminated.

Deputy County Attorney John Hart said the law is inconclusive on the issue.

“One of the county powers you have is to make orders for the disposition or use of county property for the interests its inhabitants require,” he said, citing the law. Yet other rules seem to counter the first. “No county must ever give or loan a credit in aid of, or make any donation or grant by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual.”

Whether a county-backed loan program is legal, it would still take several weeks to get the program up and running, and it would bring a long list of hurdles with it. At least five local banks are offering low-interest loans or loan deferrals to federal workers.

The county could have more impact by setting up a resource clinic for federal workers, county staff suggested. Missoula International Airport has already taken similar steps in support of TSA agents, who will see their second payday pass this Friday without a check.

“Treating this like a disaster, we’d do a Multi-Agency Resource Center,” said Adriane Beck, county director of Disaster and Emergency Services. “We’d bring in a lot of our community partners and lot of volunteer organizations that offer resources to victims of a disaster or an emergency.”

Those agencies and organizations include the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Montana Food Bank, the Missoula Food Bank and United Way. It could help raise support for workers, be it a gas card or diapers for their children.

Beck noted that federal employees are restricted from accepting gifts or donations, though working through a particular union could serve as a workaround.

“The gift law makes sense if you receive a gift and you’re obligated to return that favor,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “But this is an anonymous donation of diapers we’re talking about.”

Treating the shutdown as a natural disaster would take a week to arrange, Beck said. County commissioners asked staff to begin the process. A resource clinic with all agencies on deck will likely take place next week, barring an end to the shutdown.

But even reaching the employees could be a challenge. Federal emails are bouncing back unread.

“One of the challenges we’re recognizing right now is how to get the information to the individuals,” Beck said. “Their conventional mechanisms of communication through the government are severed right now.”

Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, have over the past week reiterated their support for President Donald Trump and his demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion for a border wall, which remains at the heart of the shutdown.

Last week, Gianforte told a Coast Guard employee, “I’ll just apologize on behalf of the government.”

Sen. Jon Tester has urged Trump to reopen the government while border talks continue.

Montana has been among the hardest hit states during the shutdown, with its 14,000 federal employees and two national parks. Along with Alaska, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Montana has the highest percentage of federal workers when compared to the overall workforce.

It wasn’t immediately known Tuesday how many federal employees work in Missoula County. The county’s effort to support federal workers would be open to any federal employee in Montana, commissioners said.