The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on Monday it intends to close 259 offices, facilities and laboratories across the United States, as part of an effort to save about $150m a year in the agency’s $145bn budget.
Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the plans, dubbed “USDA Blueprint for Stronger Service” at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting, with about half the closures to affect local Farm Service Agency offices, which deal with crop subsidies and farm insurance, and conservation programs.
“In many cases, offices recommended for closure are either not staffed or staffed with just one or two employees and within 20 miles of other offices,” the agency said.
Vilsack said that the USDA did not envisage mass job cuts, partly because about 7,000 USDA employees accepted early retirement over the past year. Employees from affected offices are expected to be given the option to transfer to nearby offices where possible, the agency said. It employs about 104,000 staff worldwide.
“In an era of reduced budgets, we’re not going to see reduced service,” Vilsack said.
Among the closures, the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services department is due to lose about half of its 63 offices nationwide, with 32 to remain. The agency claims that new technology has reduced the need for “brick and mortar” facilities.
About $90m worth of cuts have already been made by reducing costs for transport and supplies, so the closures are expected to save an additional $60m a year, Vilsack said. The closure of ten Agricultural Research Service (ARS) labs had also already been announced, including the only ARS lab in Alaska.
“The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago," he said. "We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers' dollars. We must build on the record accomplishments of farm communities in 2011 with a stronger, more effective USDA in 2012 and beyond."
The Food Safety and Inspection Service, responsible for meat, poultry and egg product safety, will have the number of offices cut by a third, from 15 to 10 by the end of fiscal 2013, although it is not expected to lose any staff as a result.
Vilsack added that the cost savings to be realized from the closures, alongside other plans, such as consolidating cell phone contracts, would allow further investment in the agriculture sector.
“USDA has heard from producers about reducing red tape and the need to modernize its services,” he said. “Today, we are answering the challenge by announcing a series of efforts to help us continue to streamline operations, make the best use of taxpayer resources, and provide the best possible service to the American people."
In addition to the 259 domestic facility closures, the USDA said it would also close seven foreign offices.