Sec. Vilsack tells AFBF about tough calls, tough choices on office closings
By Sara Wyant
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HONOLULU, Jan. 9 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told American Farm Bureau Federation members gathered here for their 93rd annual meeting that he is listening to their concerns about overegulation and is making tough choices to downsize his agency.
Since 2010, Congress has reduced USDA's discretionary operating budget by more than $3 billion - a roughly 12% cut.
Vilsack announced that the Farm Service Agency, NRCS, FAS, APHIS, Rural Development, Food Safety and Inspection Services and Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services are unveiling today their recommendations for 249 offices that would be closed or consolidated and work transferred. Of the closures, 131 will be FSA offices. These locations join an additional 12 labs at 10 locations that ARS received permission from Congress to close this fiscal year, for a total of 259 locations.
Vilsack also announced that nearly 7,000 people announced plans to retire in the last 15 months and “that number is sure to grow as this year progresses.
“We understood this day of reduced budgets was coming and we have been proactive,” Vilsack explained. “First, we started last year by reducing travel, supplies and printing costs by an aggregate of nearly $90 million. Second, also last year many agencies put hiring controls in place and those was followed by the institution of a targeted early retirement and early separation incentive program.
“These departures have 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,” Vilsack explained.
The Secretary said that USDA’s efforts to manage less money and fewer workers with a record increase in workload included an effort by the Departmental Management team to improve service by reviewing seven management responsibilities common to all mission areas. Hundreds of USDA employees engaged in the process and developed 379 recommendations to strengthen services and create greater efficiencies.
“Today, we are reaffirming 133 recommendations that describe processes already in place providing quality service in an efficient way. We are also announcing 27 recommendations of the remaining 246 recommendations that reflect a new way of doing business within the Department. This announcement will be followed over the course of the fiscal year with subsequent announcements for the rest of the recommendations and their implementation plans.
“Examples of actions to be taken immediately include consolidating the 700 plus different cell phone plans into about 10 to leverage the combined buying power of USDA agencies, standardizing civil rights complaint investigations, coordinating geospatial investments, standardizing purchases of cyber security products, centralizing certain human resource functions and developing a strategic sourcing program.
Vilsack said he estimates implementation of all these recommendations will allow USDA to avoid spending millions of dollars in less effective ways while preserving funding for the programs directly serving rural America and avoiding furloughs or further reductions in workforce that can interfere with prompt delivery of important services.
Vilsack won applause from AFBF members when he talked about how we plans to work with other agencies that are developing new regulations.
“I know there is more work to be done in regulatory matters including the EPA’s guidance involving water quality and the Department of Labor's proposed child labor rule for employees of non-family farming operations,” he said.
“I have reached out to the Department of Labor about the proposed rule to explain the concerns in the countryside about the impact on traditional family farm operations. I know you share a deep concern for the safety of all of our children - particularly those working on farms and working with farm machinery.
Vilsack said he encouraged the Labor Department to spend some time communicating more thoroughly the purpose and intent of the proposed rule - to reassure folks that it will not interfere with families and their ability to raise their children with a love for hard work done in a safe way. He has also asked USDA staff to reallocate resources from our Research, Education and Economics mission to help fund additional training opportunities so those needing additional training can receive it.
Updated at 5:35 CDT and 1:20 CDT
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