MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 7, 2013

Federal shutdown also threatens cemetery

By Thad Ayers
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Fort Gibson National Cemetery has about a week before the federal government shutdown forces its employees to take furlough days.

In the meantime, however, no burials will happen on Columbus Day next Monday, said Director Bill Rhoades. The cemetery usually does burials on federal holidays after a weekend.

“We can’t do it now because we can’t pay the overtime,” Rhoades said.

Portions of the federal government have been closing after members of Congress did not reach a budget agreement by last Tuesday’s deadline.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stated national cemeteries “may be on a reduced schedule,” according to a shutdown field guide posted online.

Rhoades said a reduction is possible as the shutdown continues, but said the cemetery’s Monday through Friday schedule remains unchanged at this point.

Schedules for the cemetery’s nine employees, however, will change unless a budget is passed. Those employees will get furlough days, or mandatory unpaid days off, starting as early as next Tuesday, Rhoades said.

The National Cemetery Administration will furlough 1,063 of its 1,809 employees if the shutdown continues, according to the VA.

Another effect the shutdown has had on the Fort Gibson cemetery is that employees have to perform lawn maintenance.

“We had a contract that ended (Sept. 30),” Rhoades said.

“And we had awarded a new contract, but we can’t start it until we get 2013 funds.”

That private company would be responsible for the keeping the burial grounds mowed, trimmed and keeping the 38-acre cemetery intact, Rhoades said.

“We’ll absorb it and do the best we can with it, but we don’t have the manpower to mow and trim,” he said. “The other thing is that if a mower breaks down or a part is needed, we cannot replace it.”

Lawnmowers aren’t considered “essential equipment” for the cemetery, but a backhoe is needed because of its use in veterans’ burials, Rhoades said.

And as federal offices and programs await their fiscal budgets, Rhoades said his office will continue to do their main job.

“Our focus is on interments, and we’ll continue to inter our veterans,” he said.

Reach Thad Ayers at (918) 684-2903 or tayers

@muskogeephoenix.com.