WASHINGTON - The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced Thursday, June 13, that the department's Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture will move to the Kansas City area - a plan that continues to be criticized by a broad spectrum of government, science, agriculture and agency employees.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in August 2018 that the ERS and NIFA would move from Washington, D.C., to new, undetermined locations around the country. The USDA received 136 proposals from across the country for the relocation.
"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 plan will move 294 NIFA employees out of 315 and 253 ERS employees out of 329.
Perdue also announced that despite plans to put ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist, rather than its current spot under the Research, Education, and Economics mission area, that move won't happen.
"While we believe there is considerable synergies and benefits to a realignment, after hearing feedback from stakeholders and members of Congress, USDA will not move forward with the realignment plan," a USDA statement said.
According to the Kansas City Area Development Council, Kansas City already is home to more than a dozen USDA agency operations, more than 5,000 USDA employees and 35,000 federal employees. The council says the USDA is evaluating multiple properties in Kansas and Missouri.
Factors leaning in Kansas City's favor include its existing concentration of USDA and federal employees, its proximity to 13 land grant universities, its central location in the country and the KC Animal Health Corridor.
"We welcome the ERS and NIFA teams and look forward to introducing them to KC's incredible culture, robust scientific community and unprecedented access to the research, farm, agribusiness and financial customers they serve," Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said in a statement.
The USDA claims the move will save nearly $300 million nominally over a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent or about $20 million per year. However, the move has plenty of critics.
Chief among the reasons for criticism is the belief that moving the agencies will undermine the work they do. The American Federal of Government Employees, a union that employees of both agencies recently joined, said employees do not want to move out of D.C.
"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. We will continue to work with Congress and other parties to fight this wrongheaded proposal, which is little more than a backdoor way to slash the workforce and silence the parts of the agencies' research that the administration views as inconvenient," AFGE National President J.David Cox Sr. said in statement.
"The researchers and other stakeholders we work with don't want us to move - they want us to stay right here in Washington, where we can easily coordinate with the other federal science agencies," said AFGE Local 3403 President Dave Verardo, whose local represents the ERS and NIFA employees.
"Moving NIFA and ERS farther away from our nation's capital, as the USDA intends to do, could negatively impact the ability of these agencies to produce and fund high-quality research and communicate with legislators, which could, in turn, make it that much more difficult to be a farmer," National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said. "We are extremely frustrated that our serious concerns have fallen on deaf ears."
Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement called the move "a blatant attack on science" that "will especially hurt farmers, ranchers and eaters at a particularly vulnerable time."
"It was clear from the start that the Trump administration was systematically hollowing out USDA's ability to produce objective science," Lavender said. "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."
Lavender said the only positive aspect of the announcement was the decision to not realign ERS.
Also among the complaints is the belief that USDA acted without listening to stakeholders, including farmers and employees.
"Secretary Perdue continually speaks of transparency and communicating to employees but has failed on both fronts," said a statement from Kevin Hunt, Local 3403 vice president for ERS. "Instead of soliciting input from stakeholders or negotiating with bargaining unit employees, Secretary Perdue went behind closed doors to solicit 'best offers' and 'incentives' from the short-list sites. The announcement today is a clear indication that Secretary Perdue does not have the best interests of federal employees or taxpayers in mind."
"This announced move points to a troubling history of non-transparent decision-making at USDA," Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio said in a statement. "USDA has rushed this process, failed to give sufficient time for input and feedback, and disregarded the very public opposition of those who rely on the products that ERS and NIFA produce."
Fudge, who chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, also noted that employees will have only 30 days to decide whether to move from Washington to the Kansas City area.
In a statement, Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-N.Y., said farmers, ranchers and agriculture researchers have voiced opposition to the move, which she called "a solution in search of a problem."
"Staff losses stemming from this move will hinder USDA's ability to supply our farmers and ranchers with objective scientific information and economic data," said Plaskett, who chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research.