March 01, 2012

 

 USDA reducing offices, employees

Posted on February 15, 2012
 

About 270 Department of Agriculture offices are closing, and the department is cutting jobs and operational costs.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the closings during a speech in January, in which he noted that his department faces substantial reductions in its operating and program budgets. A transcript of the speech, which was delivered at an American Farm Bureau meeting, notes that three separate proposals from a committee of legislators, Rep. Paul Ryan, and President Barack Obama call for USDA program budget cuts of $23 billion, $48 billion, and $33 billion, respectively, over 10 years.

"These proposals set the range," the transcript states. "The hard part will be settling on a number and what must be cut to reach that number."

USDA information states that the department has been working to "create optimal use of USDA's employees, better results for USDA customers, and greater efficiencies for American taxpayers."

Vilsack said the USDA will close the following offices, although operations from the closing Farm Service Agency offices will be consolidated with those of other offices:

  • 12 Agricultural Research Service laboratories in 10 locations.
  • 15 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service offices within the U.S.
  • Five APHIS offices in other countries.
  • 131 Farm Service Agency county offices.
  • 31 Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services field offices.
  • Five Food Safety and Inspection Service district offices.
  • Two Foreign Agricultural Service country offices.
  • 24 Natural Resources Conservation Service soil survey offices.
  • 43 Rural Development offices.

"These closings and consolidations will begin taking place over the late winter and spring," Vilsack said. "FSA's goal is to finish consolidation by July, and all other agencies—except for Food Safety district offices—aim to close facilities by the end of September.

"I know that some may be inconvenienced by this choice, but services will not be interrupted."

In October and November 2011, AVMA sent letters to members of Congress who were considering appropriations for USDA agencies. The AVMA advocated that funding for agencies such as APHIS, FSIS, and ARS be a priority and warned that substantial cuts to those agencies could harm their abilities to ensure food safety, protect animal health and welfare, and watch for and respond to disease outbreaks.

Lyndsay M. Cole, a spokeswoman for APHIS, said the office closures affecting her agency are necessary to meet projected budget reductions and improve efficiency. Most of the 78 employees at those facilities will be able to relocate to other nearby USDA offices or work from home.

"APHIS will work with stakeholders to ensure they continue to receive needed services without disruption once the closures occur," Cole said.

Some office closures are related to a reduced need for international APHIS surveillance for avian influenza, completed work on a disease in wheat in Texas, and shifting focus on efforts to control a moth that has been a pest in California.

The department also has reduced travel, supply, and equipment costs by $90 million, implemented hiring controls, and offered early retirement and separation incentives. About 7,000 USDA employees retired on their own or took advantage of those incentives over 15 months.

"The workforce reductions are spread across all agencies and throughout many locations—including reductions in the D.C. headquarters and regional offices," the transcript states. "Both management and rank and file positions are being reduced."

The USDA will also work to cut costs through efforts such as standardizing software purchases and centralizing human resources activities.

Vilsack also noted that the USDA's discretionary budget has been cut by $3 billion, or 12 percent, since 2010. Salaries and expense money sharply dropped in several agencies, including APHIS and the ARS, and the USDA's Office of the Chief Economist and Office of General Counsel took an 18 percent cut in the current budget year.

The secretary indicated that the 2012 Farm Bill, "first and foremost," must provide a safety net for food producers, and the net must include expansion of crop insurance and revenue protection during disasters and low prices.

The bill also needs to provide adequate resources and flexibility to promote stewardship and conservation, provide money to encourage and promote expanded trade, maintain research efforts needed to keep a competitive edge and leadership in productivity, and support young people who want to grow crops or raise livestock, Vilsack said.