With cuts looming, Park Service closes Ben Franklin print shop, Jefferson’s Declaration House

The Declaration House, at 7th and Market Streets, is a 1975 re-creation of the house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. During the Second Continental Congress in 1776, Jefferson rented the top two floors of what was known as the Graff House for the three weeks it took him to write the Declaration.

As federal employees in Philadelphia await President Trump’s first budget -- and the massive cuts hinted at in leaks -- workers at some agencies say they’re already feeling the squeeze.

The union that represents the employees at Independence National Historical Park says the president’s hiring freeze on most federal jobs has forced the closure of several historic buildings and exhibits across the park.

David Fitzpatrick, the president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2058, said the freeze was responsible for the shuttering of seven attractions, including Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; exhibits at the site of Ben Franklin’s home and print shop; and the home of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military leader who served as a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War.

Park bathrooms at Fifth and Chestnut Streets, near Independence Hall, have also been closed because the agency can’t hire anyone to clean them, Fitzpatrick said. Tourists have been directed to the Independence Visitor Center, two blocks away at Sixth and Market Streets -- which might be too far for people who are traveling with small children or who have limited mobility, Fitzpatrick said.

Sometimes the park limits visiting hours to its historic buildings during the off-season, or opens some sites by appointment only -- like the Todd House, where James Madison’s wife, Dolley Todd Madison, lived, and which is currently closed. But Fitzpatrick said this round of closures was unusual.

“I’ve been here 17 years,” he said, “and I can’t recall anything like this before.”

Representatives from the National Park Service would not comment specifically on the closures despite several requests. An Independence National Historical Park spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency was still consulting with the federal Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget on how to implement the hiring freeze, and that last month OMB had approved the Park Service’s plan to hire seasonal employees. The email did not say what jobs those seasonal employees would fill, or whether those jobs were specific to Philadelphia.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, said lowered staffing levels at the park were dismaying.

“Everyone wants a more efficient and effective government, but we can’t have staffing levels so low that children don’t have the opportunity to learn about the founding principles that made this country great,” she said. “That’s just bad government. We hope that as Congress and the president consider their budget, they will learn from this mistake and institute a budget that lives up to our nation’s proud history of serving our most vulnerable.”

The closed historic buildings aren’t big-ticket sites like Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. But Visit Philadelphia, the city’s tourism marketing agency, says smaller attractions add to the charm of the park and Old City as a whole. The agency is in the second year of a campaign that promotes the area around the park as “Philadelphia’s original city,” said Paula Butler, Visit Philadelphia’s vice president.

“The Park Service has had budget issues before, and nothing is going to stop people from coming to Independence National Historical Park and seeing what they can see,” Butler said. “It means a lot to people. If not everything’s open, people just love being there.”

Bob Skiba, the former president of the association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, said he had noticed some of the building closures -- particularly Franklin’s print shop, an interactive exhibit that’s popular with school groups -- and was “pretty sure” that some were due to the hiring freeze, according to park rangers he’d spoken to. He said he believed park workers were waiting to see whether those closures were temporary or more long-term.

“When a group comes to the mall, people spend an hour and a half to two hours on tours -- and as a tour guide, when I bring people around, I’m not just showing them the sites. I’m telling them stories,” he said. “And when I don’t have pieces of the story available.…”

Fitzpatrick said his union was bracing for Trump’s planned budget announcement on Thursday. For months, leaks of several budget proposals have suggested the president is planning major cuts to several federal agencies, including some that employ people in Philadelphia.

The federal government is the largest employer in Pennsylvania and the second-largest in Philadelphia -- nearly 30,000 people here work for it, including the Park Service employees Fitzpatrick represents, Veterans Affairs staffers, and IRS workers.

At the Environmental Protection Agency -- where the Trump administration has reportedly considered cutting 20 percent of staff -- rank-and-file employees’ morale is low, said Gary Morton,  president of AFGE Local 3631. He represents about 800 EPA employees in five states, including Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

“We did hire a number of employees prior to the hiring freeze in our region -- but I am, as union president, concerned for the new hires, and any type of effect that the budget cuts might have on their employment,” Morton said. 

At the National Treasury Employees Union, president Tony Reardon said employees were similarly anxious. The Department of the Treasury, which includes the IRS and the U.S. Mint, employs nearly 5,000 people in Philadelphia.

“I've been [at the IRS] for 30 years, and I have never seen the morale at the agency so low,” said Cheryl Brewer, president of Philadelphia's NTEU chapter, who said the agency had been weathering $1 billion in budget cuts since 2010. “We are all middle-class Americans, and we face some of the same financial problems everyday Americans face.”

The Trump administration has reportedly considered a 14 percent cut -- some $1.5 billion, Reardon said -- to the IRS’s budget alone.

“Federal employees are nonpartisan -- they’re doing the work they’re instructed to do, and they should not be paying the price simply because there’s some political agenda out there,” Reardon said. “Eighty-five percent of federal employees are outside of Washington, D.C., so when I talk about the economic impact [of budget cuts], we’re talking about impact felt across the country.”