Some of those smiling faces you've grown accustomed to seeing at your county Farm Service Agency office may not be there when you go in to sign up for a new program or check on your LDPs this fall.
USDA is preparing to offer “buyouts” and “early outs” to from 535 to 612 Farm Service Agency employees as part of the Bush administration's and Congress' efforts to reduce federal spending. The buyouts would take effect by Nov. 3 and the early outs by Dec. 31, according to FSA sources.
FSA administrators say a projected shortfall in congressional funding for the agency's operations and shifts in workloads are responsible for the buyout and early out offers that are expected to be made public in the next few days.
“Despite FSA's attempts to secure full funding for continuing fiscal 2005 FTE levels, the most recent projections for FSA's fiscal 2006 budget will result in about 850 fewer budgeted positions (FTEs) than authorized in fiscal 2005,” FSA Administrator James Little said in a notice to FSA employees dated Aug. 22.
“Much of this reduction has been or will be accomplished by attrition and employment of fewer temporary employees. The remaining needed reductions will hopefully be accomplished by offering 321 county and 214 federal permanent positions VSIP/VERA incentives.”
County office employees are those who carry out FSA programs, while state office and agricultural credit employees hold GS or federal positions, according to a FSA county director. VSIP and VERA are Office of Management and Budget abbreviations for Voluntary Separation Incentives Program and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (buyouts and early outs).
Employees who elect to accept the buyout or early out offers can apply for an incentive payment of up to $25,000 in return for their resignation or retirement from the agency. The payment will be the lesser of the $25,000 or the amount of severance pay the employees might receive if they were separated involuntarily from the agency. Employees with only a few years of service could receive a payment much smaller than $25,000.
A state-by-state review of the reduction targets appears to show Southeastern states will bear the brunt of the cutbacks.
Louisiana, for example, could lose up to 29 county office and 13 federal positions to buyouts and early outs; Iowa would lose seven county positions, and Minnesota and Michigan, two each. (Arkansas would lose 15 county positions; Mississippi, 12 county and four federal; Missouri, four county; and Tennessee, 27 county. Texas would lose 18.)
“We're being told that we're overstaffed according to our workload,” said Mickey Black, state executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Mississippi. “We don't want to lose anyone, but the reality is that the cuts have to be made.
“As far as we're concerned, we're already a bare bones operation,” said Black. “We have reservations about the level of service we'll be able to provide when these reductions are completed. We're also concerned about a possible restructuring or consolidation of some county offices.”
Besides the budget shortfall, FSA officials are attributing the targeted reductions to “legislative changes affecting our programs, lack of needed skill sets in some areas and shifts in workload in field offices.”
The latter includes transferring the responsibility for administering the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from FSA to USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the tobacco buyout that will effectively end USDA's Tobacco Program.
“These changes mean there will be surplus staff in these program areas,” an FSA official said in Washington. “In addition, based on shifting workload, some field offices are overstaffed. These are some of the areas in which positions will be targeted for buyouts and early outs.”
Asked if certain employees or regions were being singled out, the official said the FSA's deputy administrators “identified positions and selection priorities in their mission areas and state executive directors reviewed positions and selection priorities in their state and county offices.”
FSA officials have admitted privately, however, that many county offices are now staffed at 70 percent of workload even after the shifts in the EQIP and tobacco programs have been made, a county director said.
While the Aug. 22 notice does not mention consolidation of offices, FSA sources say they're being told that county office consolidations once again are on the table.
“All bans and restrictions on office consolidations have been lifted,” said a county office employee, referring to a Clinton administration moratorium on such restructuring. “State offices can submit recommendations as they see fit, and they will be acted on.
“If the buyouts do not work, we're being told that other means could be used to reduce staff.”
Members of the National Association of State and County Office Employees (NASCOE) are still hopeful of getting some of the budget shortfall restored in the fiscal 2006 budget appropriations now pending in Congress.
The Senate has passed its appropriations bill for USDA, but the House Agriculture Committee has not. “We hope the House will increase funding for administration of county offices to match the Senate bill,” said a NASCOE member. “The initial proposals in the House were for large cuts in USDA spending.”
Several members of Congress have written to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, asking him to direct more funding to the Farm Service Agency county offices in anticipation of increased demand for marketing assistance loans along with disaster assistance and tobacco buyout sign-ups.
“We continue to be deeply concerned about the proposed cuts to farm programs contained in the president's fiscal 2006 budget,” a letter to Johanns said. “Not only do we oppose funding reductions in farm programs, we believe the department should commit additional resources to field offices so they can effectively deliver permanent farm and conservation programs and the upcoming sign-ups for disaster assistance and the tobacco buyout.”
The congressmen, who included Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, and Reps. Mike McIntyre and Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, said high yields across the United States “portend a heavy workload.”
“We would request that USDA provide for more permanent non-federal employees and additional funds to hire temporary employees to meet the workload estimates, allowing producers to make the most of whatever market opportunities arise.”