Facing a shrinking budget, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has outlined moves — including the closure of 259 offices, facilities and labsunder the USDA umbrella — to save some $150 million annually.

Some of the closings have been announced previously.

The shuttering of the USDA offices, made under a plan titled “A Blueprint for Stronger Service,” was unveiled in Hawaii during a Jan. 9 speech that Vilsack delivered at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 93rd annual meeting. He told the assembly that since 2010, Congress has reduced USDA discretionary spending by nearly 12 percent, or more than $3 billion.

For the USDA plan, see http://usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=blueprint_for_stronger_service.html.

A map showing where USDA offices will be closed can be seen at http://usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=impacted_offices.html.

As a result, “some agencies were reduced more than others. Agencies facing steep cuts, specifically in their salaries and expense line item that fund personnel, included the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service.”

To read Vilsack’s prepared AFBF remarks, see http://content.govdelivery.com/bulletins/gd/USDAOC-2517ea.

In a blog post (see http://blogs.usda.gov/2012/01/09/a-blueprint-for-stronger-service/), Vilsack pointed to measures already taken in some USDA offices including hiring controls and early separation programs. “These efforts, when coupled with regular retirement, meant nearly 7,000 employees have retired from USDA over the past 15 months.”

Further, “A Blueprint for Stronger Service” lists 133 recommendations that affirm processes already in place, as well as 27 initial improvements, and others aimed at longer-term improvements. The initial recommendations include the following:

• Consolidate more than 700 cell phone plans into about 10.

• Standardize civil rights training and purchases of cyber security products.

• Ensure more efficient and effective service to our employees by moving toward more centralized civil rights, human resource, procurement, and property management functions, creating millions of dollars in efficiencies without sacrificing the quality of our work.”

Meeting needs of customers

Vilsack told the AFBF that shedding 7,000 USDA employees “allowed us the flexibility to eliminate positions or restructure positions to be more relevant to the needs of our customers. Many of the positions we will fill will be at pay rates less than before. Given the reduced resources, our other choice of further reductions in force or furloughs would be very disruptive to the services that matter to you and those in rural America.”

While Vilsack said the workforce reductions were necessary, he acknowledged they come at a time “when more work was being demanded of our staff. For example, new programs called for by the 2008 farm bill. FSA, with a reduced workforce had to institute new disaster programs like SURE and the Livestock Forage and Indemnity programs. At the same time, Rural Development and FSA were beginning to implement the new Energy Title programs. Workloads were also increased in the area of nutrition assistance as a result of the recession and expanded need to help struggling families manage.”

Vilsack addressed the closing of 131 FSA offices specifically. “First, in making the decision to close an office, FSA relied on the 2008 farm bill criteria for determining what offices would be considered. Of the 131 offices on the list, 35 currently have no employees — the balance of the offices have either one or two employees and are within 20 miles of another FSA office. The work of these offices will be assigned to the adjoining county office, and personnel given the opportunity to transfer as well.”

The FSA office closings process will begin immediately with an aim to finish by July. Law requires that the closing of such offices — each within 20 miles of an FSA office that will remain open — must begin with a public hearing “in each county impacted by this decision. Those hearings will take place within 90 days.”

As for other agencies — including Food and Nutrition Services, NRCS and APHIS — office closings should take place by the end of the fiscal year in September.

“I know that some may be inconvenienced by this choice, but services will not be interrupted,” said Vilsack.

During a Jan. 10 press conference, Vilsack said the office closings must be put into “the proper context. … In order to deal with (the $3 billion in cuts), we had to take a look at specifically Congress’ direction in terms of our salaries and expense item — the item that funds personnel and operating expenses of all the mission areas with the exception of the Forest Service. … That resulted in having to make some serious decisions.”

Two paths could have been taken, said Vilsack. One option was to create “a comprehensive approach — looking at efficiencies, travel, conferences, supply purchases, personnel and retirement opportunities, process improvement and our physical footprint around the world.” The second option was to do “what is normally done, which is to furlough or reduce the number of USDA employees by laying off the most recently hired.”

The first option was chosen because lay-offs would have caused “a massive disruption in service to the people we care about.”

Program budgets also slashed

Vilsack also pointed out that not only has the USDA’s operating budget been slashed but so have program budgets. “We reduced … the amount of money being paid to crop insurance companies and saved $4 billion towards deficit reduction. We’ve also seen conservation (program) reductions in terms of how much Congress has allocated. We anticipate further program cuts as Congress debates and discusses the farm bill.”

He insisted that despite the closings and consolidation “all the work being at USDA will continue to be done. It will just be transferred to a different location.”

Reports that food safety inspections would suffer due to the USDA cuts are incorrect, said Vilsack. Office closings in the food safety area “are about administrative personnel, not inspectors. We did not deal with inspectors at all. They will still be in every single plant … and (the closings) will have no impact whatsoever on our responsibility to ensure the safety of the food supply.”

Asked about the possibility of more agriculture cuts from the White House side, Vilsack refused to “preempt” Obama administration 2013 budget requests because “I don’t know if decisions have been finalized.” However, if deeper cuts are coming, the USDA plan takes that “into consideration … and gives us the flexibility, we believe, to respond to what may occur.”

Queried on the reluctance of lawmakers to allow USDA office closings in the past, Vilsack said the current effort is different. “In this particular circumstance … we need to get our financial house in order. That requires tough choices and calls.”

He does not “anticipate a significant amount of pushback” to the planned closures “once folks are shown the numbers. … It’s a little different context than in the past (due to a) year-plus of talk about the need to get our fiscal house in order.”

That anticipation may prove faulty, though, as complaints have begun about the lack of input on the plan from the agricultural sector.

However, the National Farmers Union put much of the blame for the closings on Congress. “It should come as no surprise that FSA and other USDA service and research facilities are closing because of the continued emphasis on spending reduction,” said Chandler Goule, NFU Vice President of Government Relations in a statement. “A ‘cut first, ask questions later’ attitude in Congress toward investing in agriculture and rural America is now showing its true cost to farmers, ranchers and rural citizens with these closures. Agriculture cannot be continually asked to do more than its fair share to resolve our nation’s deficit problems — our leaders must look elsewhere to find solutions.”

Goule said the USDA has “made great strides toward streamlining and economizing the department’s operations. Since 2010, Congress has cut USDA’s discretionary spending levels by about 12 percent, and USDA has done its best to prevent those reductions from affecting the quality of service that farmers and ranchers have come to expect. With the latest spending reductions, it was not possible to avoid painful cuts that will harm farmers and ranchers across the country.”

dbennett@farmpress.com