USDA agencies cutting costs ahead of cuts, House panel told

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 24, 2013 - Two USDA agencies told a House panel today that while they will be tightening their belts in the wake of a reduced FY 2014 budget request from the administration and the results of sequestration, they expect to maintain high levels of service.

Top officials from USDA's Rural Development and its Natural Resources and Environment agencies discussed their budget plans in separate hearings before the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.

During the hearing on Rural Development, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told lawmakers and witnesses that he was not sure the request was “in tune with the needs” of rural America.

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“It seems that I've seen this budget before and is hard to believe that once again USDA proposes very large cuts for the programs, such as Single Family Direct Loans and Water and Waste Disposal grants, that matter the most in rural America,” Aderholt said. “Instead, the administration seems to have placed its focus on a new $55 million economic development program that has not been reviewed by Congress.”

Doug O'Brien, deputy under secretary of Rural Development, told the panel that his agency has been cutting costs for the past two years. O'Brien said the agency has reduced its workforce by about 18 percent, or 1,053 workers, since FY 2012.

The reductions are expected to save more than $95 million per year in staff costs; however, at some point, he said, the agency risks the integrity of the delivery of programs and services. O'Brien said despite the prudent savings steps, the agency will feel the crunch of sequestration.

“We will have to cut back on essential services,” he said. “The reduced level of program funding will mean that rental assistance will not be available for more than 15,000 very low income rural residents.”

Still, O'Brien said that with a proposed budget authority of $2.3 billion to support a proposed program level of $35 billion, his agency is “fully engaged in efforts to increase opportunities and address the challenges unique to rural America.”

At the second hearing, Aderholt told witnesses that the cooperative work of the Natural Resources Conservation Services and farmers is “usually unrecognized.”

“Even if we don't realize it, all Americans have benefited from it,” Aderholt said. “This legacy is worth defending.”

Ann Mills, deputy under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, said the administration has requested $4 billion for NRCS conservation programs in FY 2014, including about $3 billion in mandatory funding and $808 million in discretionary funding.

“Although the agency will continue to face budgetary pressures, particularly in discretionary spending, this budget represents a significant investment in conservation and related activities.”

Jason Weller, acting NRCS chief, told lawmakers his agency imposed a hiring freeze this year, which is expected to save about $33 million in FY 2013. Also, Weller said the agency avoided $22.5 million in travel costs by increasing the use of video conferencing.

Weller said the agency has about 400 vacancies that not get filled.

This revelation clearly bothered Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

“If you have 400 vacancies, what isn't being done?” DeLauro said. “It's important to know what regions of the country are affected and what is going to happen.”

Weller insisted that overall NRCS service has not been reduced, and that the vacancies are a result of streamlining various programs.

Still, DeLauro insisted that Weller provide her office with a list of programs by region that will be cut back.


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