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Ashland lab resumes crime-solving work

All but four of 30 employees at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland were furloughed during the 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government during a standoff over funding of a controversial wall on the southern border.

With staff back at work Monday, Lab Director Ken Goddard said the furlough brought “a tremendous amount of stress” for employees, who were not paid during the shutdown, but were filing Monday for missed paychecks, which “hopefully will come by the end of the week,” the first of the month, when many rent or mortgage payments are due.

Goddard and an assistant were “exempted” and stayed at work, unpaid, to keep delicate, expensive machines running and check on super-cold evidence freezers. He also patrolled to “keep staff from coming in and working for free,” which they might do, since they are so into the work and can be “ornery,” as he put it.

Also working were two evidence police, who are paid from fees, not federal appropriations.

The lab is the only lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife and, as such, has a significant inflow of specimens and photos of suspected illegal wildlife parts, which come in from points of entry and need rapid processing. However the shutdown interrupted that flow, creating a backlog for Senior Ornithologist Pepper Trail and other scientists.

“It’s great to be back here,” said Trail. “We have a lot to catch up on. Our wildlife inspectors at airports sent us lots of photos,” which they compare with “knowns” in their vast Ashland collection of 70,000 items, without seeing most physical evidence. As a participant in CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the lab serves 182 nations.

“A lot of federal workers in the valley are in low pay grades, including in this lab,” said Goddard, “so definitely some people had hardships. It leaves you with a feeling of much wasted talent and expertise among people who are all highly motivated.”

Without the team on hand, Goddard said he and a few others did a lot of shelf-organizing and room-painting, with a bit of talking to himself, but, he joked, it wasn’t as bad as the 2013 shutdown, where he was alone and was wary of that moment “when you are talking to yourself and you start answering.”

Goddard praised the kindness of the Ashland community, which he said often has your back in hard times, with markets offering large discounts and banks waiving late fees.

The city of Ashland on Monday reminded residents they offer deferred payment or a delay in disconnects due to non-payment for those with difficulty in paying their utility bill, “specifically to those financially affected by the federal government shutdown, who may be wondering how they are going to make ends meet,” said City Administrator Kelly Madding.

The city offers the ongoing Ashland Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (ALIEAP) to help all low-income residents with electric bills in winter months. Applications are accepted through Jan. 31.

If your income is below 65 percent of Oregon’s median income, you can get a maximum credit of $300 on your electric bill. Credits of 50 percent for senior and disabled persons may be given for up to six months, and credits of 50 percent for others may be given for up to three months.

The city offers a year-round discount on Ashland utility bills for income-qualified persons age 65 or older, or qualified disabled persons age 60 or older. There is an emergency heat program that serves residents of any age, once a year, who have received a disconnect notice on their utility bill. Assistance may be offered depending on available funding, and income level. For more information, visit the utility billing desk at 20 East Main St., or email customer service at utilitybilling@ashland.or.us, or call 541-488-6004.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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