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Tax Auditors to Park Rangers Awaken Dormant Bureaucracy

National Park Service Park Ranger
A National Park Service park ranger walks through the Korean War Veterans Memorial with a closed sign he removed in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Oct. 17. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Taxpayers lined up out the doors at the Internal Revenue Service office in Newark, New Jersey. Researchers rushed to issue a delayed flu report in Atlanta. And rangers prepared for a crush of fall-foliage tourists at the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of government employees began to return to work yesterday after a 16-day shutdown and confronted an immense task: Reviving a bureaucracy that has been dormant for weeks.

“Everybody’s backed up,” John Kelshaw, an IRS appeals officer said of customer demand at the agency's Newark taxpayer assistance office. The pile up of work will take weeks to get through, said Kelshaw, who has been at the agency for 30 years.

“The collection people are backed up, and the phone calls from people wanting answers to their tax questions are just off the hook,” he said.

Doctors preparing for the approaching flu season rely on the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman, said in a phone interview.

Workers are trying to accomplish in a week “what would normally be done over the course of three weeks,” Reynolds said. “It’s a process -- there’s no just turning the light switch on after we had to turn it off.”

Shenandoah Park

The 245,000 people who visit Shenandoah National Park in October represent almost 25 percent of its annual traffic, park spokeswoman Karen Beck-Herzog said in a phone interview. Last weekend and the one that begins tomorrow are the busiest of the year, she said.

Federal agencies were instructed to begin opening offices yesterday in a “prompt and orderly manner,” according to a memo from OMB Director Sylvia Burwell that cleared furloughed employees to return to work. “We will work closely with departments and agencies to make the transition back to full operating status as smooth as possible,” she said.

The 16-day halt in operations at many federal agencies shaved at least 0.6 percent from fourth-quarter 2013 gross domestic product growth, taking $24 billion out of the U.S. economy, according to an estimate by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service. The cost of restarting the government may run into the billions of dollars, said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied shutdowns.

Back Pay

Workers who had to scrimp to cover the loss of pay received good news yesterday: Their next checks on Oct. 25 will cover the full 80-hours. Agencies said retroactive pay covering the first shutdown week would be made as soon as possible.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said at a press conference in Washington yesterday that “most employees are back or they’re on their way back.”

Agencies called many workers back immediately, giving them a “reasonable amount of time” to report -- typically within four hours of receiving notice that the government is once again open for business, she said.

Kelley -- whose union represents 150,000 federal employees at 31 agencies including the Treasury and Commerce Departments - - said one of the biggest impacts of the shutdown stems from the temporary halt in the IRS’s tax collection efforts.

IRS Deadline

The shutdown occurred around the Oct. 15 deadline for income tax filings from Americans who sought as extension from the customary April 15 deadline. Late-filers still had to send in their returns on time, but without the benefit of any aid from the IRS employees who typically man phone lines to take their last-minute questions, Kelley said.

“I believe in the next couple of days the IRS is just going to be slammed with phone calls and with requests for assistance from taxpayers who haven’t been able to get that for the last 16 days,” she said.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which furloughed all but about 300 of its 3,900 person staff, will have to reschedule public meetings, including those with companies including Southern Co., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, which were canceled during the shutdown.

“We are literally just cranking the machine back up,” Scott Burnell, an agency spokesman said in a phone interview. While the NRC didn’t lay off inspectors based at U.S. reactors, it did stop updating its daily report of incidents at the units. Those will be posted retroactively, Burnell said.

EU Deal

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office must now reschedule a round of trade negotiations with the 28-nation European Union, originally scheduled to begin Oct. 7. The Environmental Protection Agency, which furloughed more than 90 percent of its employees, expects delays in processing a backlog of on pesticide imports, Cathy Milbourn, an agency spokeswoman said.

Yesterday at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio, a train once again dropped off tourists expecting to catch the fall foliage.

“This park is an international destination, particularly in October,” said Stephen Bures, owner of Elements Gallery, a pottery and jewelry store abutting the tracks along the Cuyahoga River.

“We had people from Finland, Australia, Argentina, England. I kept telling them it was not our fault,” he said of the park’s closing.

Economic Data

A trove of data that businesses and researchers depend on went back online yesterday as agencies brought their websites back up. Some reports, however, may still be delayed.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said yesterday it won’t release an October World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, which includes information on crops and U.S. livestock, due to the shutdown. The next study is scheduled to be released Nov. 8.

Historical economic data, such as gross domestic product, consumer spending and foreign trade, compiled by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, is backed up on the agency’s website. The agency is assessing what new reports can be issued, said spokesman Thomas Dail.

“At this point we’re really still trying to figure out what’s going to be available when,” he said by phone. The bureau intends to issue a revised release schedule next week.

The shutdown stranded 6,000 refugees who were plans to come to the U.S. from war-torn countries such as Iraq, Somalia and Burma. About 2,000 are now expected to be brought to the U.S. in the week that starts Oct. 28, Barbara Day, the head of the State Department’s domestic refugee resettlement program, said in an e-mail today to nonprofit groups that find them new homes.

Bank Meeting

The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s website was flooded with traffic yesterday, after the bank couldn’t process financing applications for more than two weeks, agency spokesman Phil Cogan said in an interview. Cogan didn’t have an estimate for the number of applications for financing the bank wasn’t able to produce during the shutdown.

The Ex-Im bank’s board will meet next week to consider some of the deals that have been pending during the last two weeks, he said.

The deal to end the shutdown funds the government through mid-January and raises the U.S. debt ceiling until February. While that may mean another crisis looms in the not-too-distant future, the thousands of federal workers who returned to work after spending the past two weeks at home unpaid were happy for the return of some normalcy.

“There’s this reinvigorated sense of mission,” Jennifer Lukas-Jackson, an attorney at the Justice Department. “Everybody is in such a good mood.”

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