Buyouts possible after USDA office closures

Thursday - 1/12/2012, 9:47am EST

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary, USDA

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The Agriculture Department's closing of 259 offices could result in buyout offers, said the agency's deputy secretary.

This week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the closures would save about $150 million in the agency's $145 billion budget.

For full-time, permanent USDA employees who work at these offices, the agency will offer alternatives, such as working out of another office that may be closer, more distant or even out of the state, said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy Agriculture secretary, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

"In all cases, we're committed to providing options to USDA employees," she said.

In Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, 131 county offices are closing nationwide, leaving 2,100 open, Merrigan said. The 2008 Farm Bill directed USDA to identify FSA offices that were within 20 miles of each other and had two or fewer employees. The bulk of the closures meet those categories, she said.

Merrigan said some offices have no people at all, whether from retirements or the presence of "drop-in" locations.

Agriculture has already offered buyouts in its rural development agency, where 43 offices and sub-offices in 17 states are closing. Merrigan said 600 people accepted the buyout offer, "which actually is good news in terms of us being able to live within our means in terms of the salary and expense accounts provided in the FY12 bill."

At the same time, USDA is losing experienced employees.

"When you calculate the number of years the employees have been at the department, we're seeing an outflow of 20,000 years of USDA service," she said.

Whether Agriculture will offer buyouts after the most recent announcement of office closures is unclear.

"Will there be additional VSIPs (voluntary separation incentive pay) down the road? Possibly," Merrigan said. "My goal is certainly to get through FY12 in good shape, and there's still a lot of things pending with the Congress, with the payroll tax debate."

Amidst these uncertainties, USDA is also preparing for the fiscal 2013 budget, she said.

"I can't predict all that can happen. My crystal ball is not that good," Merrigan said.

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