WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans Tuesday to close 1,274 field offices across the country -- a move designed to save $3.6 billion over five years. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said the reorganization, which has been in the works for two years, will consolidate 14 agencies and eliminate about 11,000 jobs. Espy said the streamlining and downsizing of the department will save money and improve services to the nation's farmers. He said the reorganization will save farmers 2.5 million hours annually in reduced paperwork requirements. 'Government just got smaller and services just got better,' Espy said. 'I am proud to leave a legacy of change at USDA.' Espy, who resigned in October amid allegations of ethical misconduct, leaves office at the end of the month. He has denied allegations that he accepted gifts from a company regulated by the Agriculture Department. In a written statement, President Clinton commended the announcement 'We are making a USDA that makes more sense for the customer and the taxpayer,' Clinton said. The closed offices are mainly in counties that had several offices serving different department agencies. By combining all services in one office, the department will save money and save farmers the burden of having to visit as many as four different offices to apply for government loans or insurance. The offices will also be linked by a common computer system. Some counties will lose their offices altogether; farmers in those counties will go to a neighboring county.
The downsizing effort began under Agriculture Secretary Ed Madigan in the Bush administration. After a joint Agriculture-Office of Management and Budget review, local farm groups had a say in which offices would be closed, Espy said. Espy said about 150 offices have already been closed and the department has reduced its work force from 110,000 in 1992 to a current level of 103,000. Most of the personnel reductions will take place through attrition or buyouts, he said. Many of the targeted offices are in the South, where counties are generally small. Georgia, with 159 counties and 193 current offices, will lose 101 offices. Texas, with 254 counties and 317 current offices, will lose 98 offices. Virginia will lose 57 offices; Tennessee 51; and Kentucky 41. The Farm Belt states will lose relatively few offices: Illinois will lose seven offices; Indiana 17; Iowa 13; Kansas 12; the Dakotas 13 each; and Wisconsin 24. Rhode Island took the hardest hit, losing four of six offices. Under the agency consolidation, the Farm Service Agency will handle programs previously provided by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. and the Farmers Home Administration. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will handle programs previously under the Soil Conservation Service and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. After the consolidation, the department will have 2,531 field offices serving the nation's 3,071 counties. Espy said about 15 percent of the closures will occur immediately and 30 percent to 40 percent more will be accomplished within three to four months. The reorganization will be completed within three years. Other agencies in the department, including the Forest Service, will announce further closings and reorganization moves. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Agriculture is the only Cabinet department that has actually accomplished any significant downsizing. Leahy co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., that authorized the reorganization. 'It is now time for the rest of the government to step up to the plate,' Leahy said.