Arkansas named semi-finalist for USDA’s national research HQ, Jonesboro in the running

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 829 views 

Arkansas is among the 67 select semi-finalists still in the running to land the new national headquarters for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) farming-related research and science-funding groups.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday (March 12) that the Department of Agriculture had received 136 “expressions of interest” from applicants in 35 states hoping to becoming the new home for the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), two federal agencies housed within the USDA.

ERS and NIFA, now headquartered in Washington, D.C., are responsible for researching critical issues, including food safety and security, nutrition assistance, rural job markets, sustainable farming practices and international trade policies. Arkansas officials say the controversial federal competition to relocate the two agencies could bring more than 700 high-paying, science-focused jobs to the Northeast corner of the state.

“The announcement of this middle list shows that we are committed to the important missions of these agencies and transparency in our selection process. USDA will make the best choice for our employees and customers,” said Perdue, who has visited Arkansas on several occasions. “Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers.”

The relocation of the two USDA divisions outside of the nation’s capital is part of the Trump administration’s reorganization efforts intended to improve customer service, downsize local offices and programs, and cut a significant portion of the Department of Agriculture’s annual budget.

In the White House’s proposed $4.7 trillion “Budget for a Better America” for 2020 also released Tuesday, President Donald Trump is asking for a 5% boost in military spending, $8.6 billion for the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and deep cuts to domestic social programs including Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and other federal safety net programs that mostly benefit the working poor and low-income Americans.

The proposed budget for the Department of Agriculture is $20.8 billion, which is a 15% or $3.6 billion decrease from a year ago. Perdue has said that 91% of USDA’s approximately 108,000 employees currently work outside of the Washington, D.C. region.

The annual budget for the ERS group, which provides statistical information and economic analysis for the nation’s agriculture community, is about $85 million. The USDA research group’s payroll includes about 330 social scientists and professional support staff.

The larger National Institute of Food and Agriculture was established by the 2008 Farm Bill to find innovative solutions to issues related to agriculture, food, the environment and local communities. It had an annual budget of $794.4 million in 2019, a cut of $50 million from the previous year. The group ended 2019 with 340 employees, down 72 from the 412 workers on payroll in the previous year.

According to a Talk Business & Politics interview with state Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward in October, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the city of Jonesboro, Craighead County, and other economic development partners have issued a joint application to locate the two centers in Jonesboro. Ward could not be reached for comment for this story.

In the initial phase of the selection process, USDA officials said they applied a set of guiding principles to the “Expressions of Interest” locations, including locations meeting USDA travel requirements, locations with specific labor force statistics, and locations with work hours most compatible with all USDA office schedules.

Some of the other high-level criteria included in the original statement of interest from applicants in 35 states included quality of life issues, capital and operating costs, local population and workforce data, infrastructure and logistical support for the relocated USDA staff.

Purdue said the USDA has also received letters of support from several governors, members of Congress, farm-related organizations, and state and local officials. It is possible that ERS and NIFA will be co-located when their new homes are found, officials said, although a yet-to-be-determined amount of staff from the two agencies will remain in the Washington, D.C. region.

Under the relocation plan, 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, officials said.

USDA employees in the D.C. area will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the “locality pay” for the new location. For those not interested in relocating, USDA is seeking approval from the White House Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both voluntary early retirement and separation payments, officials said.

Although Arkansas’ bid, along with the other 66 potential locations, remain under consideration, critics of the Trump administration say the USDA’s search for a new home for ERS and NIFA is weakening agricultural research and scientific integrity in policymaking.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one proposed location that went through the USDA’s “rigorous criteria” to house the research agencies was recommended by a “private citizen” in Hanover Township, Penn.

“The Trump administration’s reality TV-style contest to relocate USDA research agencies makes a mockery of food and agricultural research. The White House continually touts its support for farmers, ranchers and rural economies, but has worked to systematically dismantle evidence-based research and programs that serve those very constituents,” said Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “Just yesterday it proposed a 7% cut to the USDA research portfolio. Moreover, the administration has developed this proposal with little to no stakeholder input.”

Purdue has said he hopes to move the more than 700 ERS and NIFA employees out of Washington, D.C. by the end 2019. USDA also plans to retain a consulting firm with expertise in relocations, and has hired professional services giant Ernst & Young to provide real estate advice to support and smooth out USDA’s site selection process.