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Kansas City Region Will Host Relocated Agriculture Offices

Local lawmakers welcome Secretary Perdue’s choice in still-disputed moves out of Washington, D.C.

The greater Kansas City region, in both Missouri and Kansas, won the bidding competition to become the new location of two Washington-based Agriculture Department research offices, ending 10 months of speculation and controversy.

Several hundred employees of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture will be asked to move “closer to customers,” in the language of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who announced the final location on Thursday morning.

 “Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City Region provides a win-win–maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes and extraordinary living for our employees,” Perdue said. “The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be a hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland. There is already a significant presence of USDA and federal government employees in the region, including the Kansas City ‘Ag Bank’ Federal Reserve,” his statement continued. “This agriculture talent pool, in addition to multiple land-grant and research universities within driving distance, provides access to a stable labor force for the future. The Kansas City Region will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.” 

A new cost-benefit analysis—a tool that critics of the planned move had long said was lacking—showed that the move will save nearly $300 million over 15 years, or $20 million a year, the department said. The state and local governments involved offered relocation incentives of more than $26 million.

Perdue sent departmental staff a memo just before the public announcement, in which he touted Kansas City as “extremely livable.”

In a related move that could mollify some critics, Perdue also announced that he was cancelling an earlier plan to move the Economic Research Service out from its current reporting line in USDA’s Research, Education and Economics mission area and into the Office of the Chief Economist, reporting to the secretary. Policy advocates and many scientists worried that this would politicize research that they are trained to perform objectively. “While we believe there [are] considerable synergies and benefits to a realignment,” Perdue's Thursday statement said, “after hearing feedback from stakeholders and members of Congress, USDA will not move forward with the realignment plans.”

Out of 315 positions at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 294 will relocate while 21 will stay in Washington, the department said. Of the 329 Economic Research Service positions, 253 will relocate while 76 will stay in the capital. “No ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated,” the department said. “Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location.”

The General Services Administration is at work finding a competitive lease in the Kansas City region.

The decision was hailed by lawmakers from the area that won out against 135 competing bidders. “Secretary Perdue made the right choice in selecting Kansas City, which is a great place to live and work,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “The challenges and opportunities have never been greater than they will be in the next 25 years. These research agencies do great work, and will be at the cutting edge of agriculture and well located for assistance and examples as they do their job.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., added: “The vital research that will occur at the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility and already occurs throughout the KC Animal Health Corridor makes Kansas City a natural fit. I am pleased that USDA recognizes the rich resources the heartland provides.”

The senators' enthusiasm was echoed by Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, who said, “The move is expected to bring more than 550 jobs to the Kansas City region with wages averaging between $80,000-$100,000, while also bringing ERS and NIFA employees closer to the agricultural stakeholders and rural communities they serve.”

The American Statistical Association, which has been organizing resistance to the move since last summer, was more critical. “Secretary Perdue is well on his way to dismantling a federal statistical agency that is one of the best agricultural economics research institutions in the world, having yet to provide a single justifiable reason for doing so,” Executive Director Ron Wasserstein said. “We understand the appeal of moving federal jobs from Washington to help the economies of other regions of the U.S. However, helping a local economy should not come at the expense of scientific research and evidence-based policymaking for food, agriculture, and rural economies more broadly. National policy is made in Washington, D.C.”

The association, still hoping for the House and Senate to block the moves, also distributed figures showing a large number of vacancies and acting officials at the top levels of the research service.

The union that recently organized locals at the two offices, largely to counter the moves, also blasted the announcement. “Employees at ERS and NIFA spoke loudly and clearly by coming together to organize a union and demanding a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect their work–including transferring their jobs outside Washington,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. on Thursday. “The USDA has provided no rational justification to employees, to Congress, or to its stakeholders for this move, which will make it harder for the agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies.” 

Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “The damage was already done before Secretary Perdue made his decision. It was clear from the start that the Trump administration was systematically hollowing out USDA’s ability to produce objective science. The White House proposed budget cuts to eliminate research that’s inconvenient to its interests and at the same time they’ve created this unnecessary relocation crisis, which is driving off scientists who conduct that very research.”

The only “positive aspect of today’s announcement,” Lavender added, was that “the administration buckled to intense pressure against moving the Economic Research Service under the political side of USDA’s organizational chart.”