KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The relocation of two USDA departments out of the Washington D.C. area could begin as early as next month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said after announcing most of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would move to the Kansas City region.
“We already have facilities in Kansas City, in the Beacon facility,” Perdue said in a conference call with reporters. “We have some room there, space for 200 employees there, and some families want to move before school time.”
USDA’s lease on the Beacon building expires in about two years. At 6501 Beacon Drive, it is about 10 miles southeast of downtown Kansas City, Mo., just west of Interstate 435 and about five miles south of I-70. It currently houses offices for USDA’s Farm Services and Risk Management Agencies.
“Hopefully we can get permanent space sooner than later,” Perdue said. “We have not determined which side of the river we will be on. Kansas City submitted as a region. Obviously different states will have different incentives as well. We’ll have to let General Services look at that.”
He declined to identify any incentives.
“These are proprietary discussions,” he added. “If the locals choose to disclose their incentives, they can do so.”
Kansas City was chosen over two other finalists. Bids by Omaha and Lincoln were eliminated in an earlier round of consideration. Perdue said the KC bid “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. The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be 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. 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.”
In a press release announcing the relocation, USDA said it conducted a Cost Benefit Analysis and conservative estimates showed a savings of nearly $300 million nominally over a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent, or about $20 million per year, which will allow more funding for research of critical needs like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. On top of that, state and local governments offered relocation incentives packages totaling more than $26 million. The relocation will give USDA the opportunity to attract a diverse staff with training and interest in agriculture.
“We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies. The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. We look forward to this new chapter as we seek to fulfill our motto at USDA, which is to ‘do right and feed everyone,’” Perdue said.
USDA announced in August the relocations for three main reasons:
g To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. USDA has experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C. area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.
g To place these important USDA resources closer to many of our stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C. area.
g To benefit the American taxpayers. There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.
While 90 percent of USDA employees are located outside of the D.C. area, ERS and NIFA are the only USDA agencies that don’t have representation outside of the national Capital Region (NCR). Upon the relocation announcement, USDA proposed that sufficient staff levels would remain in the NCR to complete mission critical activities that require physical presence in or near Washington, D.C. at the recommendation of customers and stakeholders. In both the cases of ERS and NIFA, leadership reviewed the critical functions and staffing needs within and outside the NCR. Senior ERS and NIFA staff, with input from partner agencies and stakeholders, recommended to Secretary Perdue the critical functions to be retained within the NCR.
Out of NIFA’s 315 positions, 294 will relocate while 21 will stay in the NCR. Of the 329 ERS positions, 253 will relocate while 76 will stay in the Washington, D.C. area.
As a result of this move, no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location.
The relocation was opposed by some in Congress and USDA employees. The relocation announcement was “a solution in search of a problem,” said Stacey Plaskett, House Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research chair. “I have heard directly from farmers, ranchers and agriculture researchers who are opposed to this relocation effort. These stakeholders never asked for these agencies to move, and USDA has yet to make a compelling case for how this action would benefit agriculture research.”
At his announcement to staff members of the two departments, several employees stood and turned their back to Perdue in protest.
“Congress can do what Congress does,” the secretary said. “We’ve done our best. I hope Congress will recognize this is a legitimate function. … and is part of the executive branch. Hopefully we’ll be allowed to make this move without any obstruction.”
Officials around the Midwest backed the Kansas City selection.
“Given that the selection criteria included quality of life, costs, workforce and logistics, it was no surprise Kansas City was selected,” said Marshall Stewart, University of Missouri vice chancellor for Extension and engagement.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said, “Agriculture is the backbone of our country. When these programs are closer to their customers, the USDA will be able to better serve the farmers and ranchers who feed the world.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said, “The animal health corridor, stretching from Manhattan, Kansas, to Columbia, Missouri, is the largest concentration of animal health companies in the world, and Kansas is also the home of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility — and today’s decision further bolsters Kansas City’s status as a national leader in the ag industry.”