Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD) and Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) led an effort to get more information from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the proposed closing of Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices in Harding, Jackson, Campbell and Jerauld Counties. The delegation wants to ensure that producers at the local level will still have access to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices that provide the kind of quality, face-to-face services they rely on.
“If we are going to get our budget in line, we need to make tough choices. But they also have to make sense,” said Johnson. “I want to hear from the Agriculture Secretary on the decision to close USDA facilities to make sure that our producers in Harding, Jackson, Campbell and Jerauld Counties will still have access to the information and services they rely on.”
“Streamlining the federal government must be done, but it must be done fairly and equitably,” said Thune. “As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in the 2008 Farm Bill we provided the USDA Secretary instructions on closing offices, and I want to make certain that Secretary Vilsack has followed Congressional intent in his selection process. I strongly advocated during the last attempt to close FSA offices and still believe that streamlining and budget cutting must effectively be pursued at headquarters’ levels before field offices are placed on the chopping block,” said Thune.
“As a former member of the Farm Service Agency Committee, I understand firsthand how important FSA offices can be to local producers. I understand there is a need to find spending cuts but USDA’s number one priority must continue to be serving farmers,” said Noem.
Earlier this month, the USDA announced that they would close 259 offices, facilities and laboratories across the country, including the four FSA offices in South Dakota.
Producers use FSA offices to get important information from the USDA and access critical agricultural programs. While some services are available online, many producers across rural America still do not have access to high-speed internet.
A copy of the letter is below:
Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
We write regarding your January 9, 2012, announcement to close 259 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices, facilities, and laboratories across the United States, and specifically five offices in our home state of South Dakota. We are concerned about the impact this plan will have on South Dakotans, and in particular, on our state’s agricultural producers.
USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices across the United States and South Dakota provide information and implement programs critical to agricultural producers. South Dakota’s county office employees provide outstanding service to producers throughout the state, efficiently serving as a necessary conduit between the producers and the programs available to them. While we are pleased that many of FSA’s programs and services are becoming available online, producers in large areas of rural America still do not have access to high speed internet. Additionally, a key component of the FSA service system is that producers have reasonable face-to-face access and assistance from FSA employees.
We are also concerned about the decision to close five of the 15 field offices nationwide of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), including the Minneapolis facility which covers a region including South Dakota. We appreciate your public statements following the announcements that inspections will not be impacted by the decision. However, we request clarification as to the impact of this decision on the successful and efficient functions of FSIS, how those employees will be impacted, and how the future need for inspectors at new facilities will be affected.
We certainly recognize that the difficult budgetary climate has required you to make tough decisions. Of course, it is important that the federal government evaluate operational efficiencies to ensure our tax dollars are used wisely. We appreciate that agencies throughout the entire federal government have undertaken such reviews as part of the Administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste. Additionally, we appreciate that, as per statute, the Department is conducting public input sessions with the producers who could be affected by the FSA closures. At the same time, we are requesting further detailed information to provide us a better understanding of the review that was undertaken in making the closure and consolidation determinations. We are especially concerned that cost efficiencies at headquarters levels of the impacted agencies and at USDA have not been fully considered before USDA is taking these steps to close and consolidate field offices. In an effort to ensure that cost efficiencies at headquarters offices have been explored and that proper and equitable consideration, including impacts on local customers and producers, has been given regarding the closing of each facility and to better understand the impact of your plan, we request responses to the following questions:
- What role will the input received from the scheduled public sessions serve before finalizing these decisions?
- Will all employees of the impacted offices be offered positions at other offices?
- What is the complete criteria the Department used to select offices for closure?
- Did the Department consider the economic impact of the proposed closures on the local economies?
- We understand that P.L. 110-246 (SEC. 14212) was used to determine which FSA offices would be closed, and that you specifically established the criteria “as the crow flies” to determine offices that are located 20 miles or more from another office. The common sense and reasonable application of the statute is 20 road miles, not distance “as the crow flies.” This is consistent with determining mileage for official government travel with motor vehicles, which is always determined by miles driven – not the straight-line distance between two places. Why did FSA deviate from official mileage determination rules and use “as the crow flies” distances?
- P.L. 110-246 (SEC. 14212)(B) references offices that have two or fewer permanent full-time employees. The only reasonable interpretation of the statute is that FSA should not use employee retirements, vacancies or transfers as factors in determining whether an office has two or fewer permanent full time employees. Rather, the number of employees that the office is designated to service the required workload is the number that should be used to determine county office staffing levels. Using the actual number of employees in the office at any given time is an unreliable and inconsistent staffing measure as this number can vary greatly due to retirements and transfers. Why did FSA use the actual number of employees for determining whether county offices met this statutory guideline, and was this criteria followed exactly the same way for all FSA county offices in the United States?
- What is the basis for selection of the South Dakota FSA offices as compared to the other states in the Northwest Area (South Dakota – 4 offices, Oregon – 3 offices, Idaho – 4 offices, Montana – 1 office and Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, Nebraska, and Washington all “0” offices to be closed)?
- What are the estimated annual and five-year savings from the FSA office closures in South Dakota?
- Prior to proposing closures and consolidation of certain county offices, what steps have USDA and FSA taken to streamline operations and reduce costs at the headquarters level, including Kansas City’s IT operations center?
- How will the county committees of the affected areas be impacted?
- With the proposed closure of five of the FSIS field offices nationwide, how will the remaining offices be regionalized?
- Will FSIS have the resources necessary for any future facilities that will require onsite FSIS inspectors?
We appreciate the assistance your staff has already provided following this announcement, and we look forward to hearing from you soon with answers to our follow-up questions.
Tim Johnson John Thune Kristi Noem
United States Senator United States Senator Member of Congress