Federal shutdown slows hiring for Atwater police

etracy@modbee.com and rparsons@mercedsunstar.comOctober 4, 2013 

— The Atwater Police Department delayed hiring a new patrol officer this week — a direct result of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

“Everything is on hold for now,” police Chief Frank Pietro said Thursday. “It (a new officer) would help, but we’re holding off pending the outcome of the shutdown.”

Atwater is one of several agencies in Merced County that receives or plans to receive federal funds to hire or retain new officers from the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program.

Less than two weeks ago, the Justice Department announced $369,931 in new police-hiring funds for Atwater.

“We were told we’d have the (paperwork) by the first, but it hasn’t come,” Pietro said. “That tells me there’s going to be a delay because of it.”

Additionally, the Gustine Police Department was promised $202,489 and the Dos Palos Police Department was awarded $123,368 from the federal program.

Those departments did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Merced Police Department also receives federal police-hiring funds, but city officials do not expect the shutdown will affect those officers.

“Depending on the length of the shutdown, it may delay reimbursements for some of those programs, “ said Mike Conway, a city spokesman. “But, at this point, it’s not a concern and we don’t expect any immediate impacts on the city.”

Both the Merced County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department said the shutdown would not hamper their operations in any way.

“Most of the (federal funding) we receive has already been allocated, fortunately,” District Attorney Larry Morse said.

However, the regional offices of federal law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, felt the shutdown immediately.

Paralegals who issue grand jury subpoenas, prepare discovery for the defense council and help draft indictments for immigration cases are among the 38 percent of U.S. Attorney Office employees in the Eastern District of California on furlough.

Administrators who handle travel expenses and pay for expert witnesses and IT employees who ensure systems are running property have also been forced to stay home.

“The impact is cumulative … things get slowed down and pushed off, it limits the capacity to take on new cases and creates a big backlog,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. “When the shutdown is over, it is going to be a bigger hole we have to dig out of.”

The Eastern District, encompassing 34 counties, represents the federal government in all criminal prosecutions for violations of federal law, civil lawsuits by and against the government, and actions to collect judgments and restitution on behalf of victims and taxpayers.

Even furloughs at other federal agencies are having impacts on its criminal proceedings, Wagner said. An expert and an investigator set to testify in a trial later his month are both on furlough in different government agencies.

A bare-bones staff of prosecutors remains in the civil division to file motions for continuances in pending cases and monitor responses.

“This comes on top of a three-year federal pay freeze and federal budget sequester cuts that may cause furlough days independent of this,” Wagner said. “Fortunately this office has a great sense of teamwork and camaraderie ... but if this goes on for a while I am not sure what it will do to morale.”

Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366.

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