Agriculture secretary seeks to avoid furloughs

Vilsack said the process will minimize impact felt by "farmers and ranchers." -- CRAIG TUTTLE/NEWSCOM

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday elaborated on his approach to cutting spending following an announcement the department will close hundreds of locations.

Under the new plan, called the Blueprint for Stronger Service, the U.S. Agriculture Department will close 259 domestic offices, facilities and labs in the United States and seven foreign offices.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Vilsack said the closings and consolidations were in response to cuts of $3 billion, or 12 percent of USDA's operating budget, that have taken place since 2010. He said Congress now is asking to cut an additional 9 percent to 18 percent in salaries and expenses as well as programs cuts in areas such as conservation.

The department has opted not "to go through the normal furlough process because this causes massive disruption in services to the people we care about, the farmers and ranchers," Vilsack said.

Instead, he will pursue a "comprehensive approach" that cuts travel and conferences by $90 million and speeds process improvement while offering early out and early separation packages. Some 7,000 department employees already have accepted such packages, Vilsack said, and he expects that number to rise, allowing planners to generate more savings by not filling posts.

Vilsack stressed that the announcements of cuts in food inspection offices affected only administrative personnel, not actual food inspectors. He added that the department will try to reassign bureau employees within 20 miles of their former office.

Asked whether Congress, as it has done in the past, might block moves to close rural offices, Vilsack said, "the difference this time is that the whole country is aware of our fiscal circumstances. We plan to manage change rather than be managed by change."

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