DES MOINES, Iowa — The U.S. Department of Agriculture will close 259 domestic offices, labs and other facilities as part of an effort to save $150 million per year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
While the closures and other cost-cutting steps will affect the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states, the savings will be relatively small in the context of the agency’s $145 billion budget.
The closures follow a review of USDA operations done as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to cut waste, Vilsack said. Congress, he said, cut the USDA operating budget, creating the challenge of finding ways to maintain services with fewer employees.
“Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service,” Vilsack said after speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation in Honolulu. He said $90 million in savings has already been achieved through reductions in travel and supplies, and the closing of the offices should result in an additional $60 million savings.
The USDA released fact sheets listing the areas where the offices would be closed. While several facilities in South Carolina will be closed, none are in the tri-county area.
The agency said many across the nation had few employees and were near other offices, but Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for USDA’s food safety and inspection office in Minneapolis, estimated 12 to 14 of the 16 people in his office would lose their jobs when it closes.
He said he is surprised the USDA is shutting down so many offices that handle food inspections in one region, with additional closures in Madison, Wis., and Lawrence, Kan.
“They wiped out the entire Midwest,” Lorenz said.
Food safety offices in Chicago and Des Moines remain open.
Vilsack said 7,000 USDA employees over the last year have taken advantage of early retirement programs, and he did not anticipate widescale layoffs with the closures, which are expected to occur by spring.
“We’re going to do everything possible to avoid that,” he said. “These closures are part of an overall process for making sure we don’t have to have furloughs or layoffs.”
He also said it’s easier to do some USDA work online, allowing employees in district and regional offices to continue serving customers at the county level.