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September 27, 2005   Email to Friend 

USDA's plan to close Farm Service Agency offices across the nation could cost Alabama 15 offices and 16 jobs
Darryal Ray
(334) 613-4187
September 27, 2005

MONTGOMERY, Ala.-- The United States Department of Agriculture's plan to streamline the Farm Service Agency by closing 713 offices nationwide means Alabama could see 15 offices closed and as many as 16 fulltime positions lost.

While it isn't known which offices will be affected under the USDA'S "FSA Tomorrow" plan, Debbie Williams, executive officer with the Alabama FSA office in Montgomery, said 28 offices would be under review when state leaders gather next week. District directors meet Tuesday, Oct. 4, in the capital city, while state committee members convene Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 5-6, at Auburn University.

"Right now, we just don't know which offices it will be," said Williams. "We could have some decisions by the end of next week, but we have 45 days to develop a plan for the national office. The national office must then approve the plan, and, from what I understand, the plans could be implemented within a year."

While the USDA's criteria for closing FSA offices is based on workload and distance from one office to another, Williams said there are other considerations to address on a state level.

"There are a lot of things we're looking at," she said. "For example, we're looking at geographic barriers...how difficult it is for the producers to be served. For that reason, some county offices targeted for closure under the national plan may not be on our list. We know our offices better than they do."

Staffing cuts could also figure into the closings, Williams said. "That will have some impact because we are going through a buyout plan now," she said. "We have to reduce our staff by 16 fulltime equivalents (FTEs) through the buyout plan, and right now, we don't know where all those buyouts are because the applications for buyout are going through the national office."

Williams said that enough FSA workers have applied for a $25,000 buyout that additional, involuntary separations are unlikely.

"We had to develop a plan for that too," said Williams of the buyouts. "We looked at locations where we had overstaffing situations and targeted those offices first. For those nearing retirement or volunteering to take early retirement, they'll get a $25,000 incentive or their severance pay, whichever is less."

"Everything's so new right now," said Williams. "We may have an idea (of office closures) by end of next week, but we may want to just wait awhile. After all, we've got 45 days and we may come up with some better ideas."

Few details of the full proposal are available, but the document delivered to Capitol Hill leaders this week calls for more than 30 percent of the nation's FSA offices to be closed.

The biggest cuts would come in Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia.

It's unclear how many jobs will be eliminated. The goal is to move as many workers as possible into consolidated offices, because the department wants better staffing.

The Farm Service Agency traces its beginnings to 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. A wave of discontent caused by mounting unemployment and farm failures had helped elect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised Americans a "New Deal."

Today, the FSA seeks to stabilize farm income, help farmers conserve land and water resources, provide credit to new or disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and help farm operations recover from the effects of disaster.

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