Buyouts offered to 400 conservation-service employees

The Agriculture Department has offered buyouts to more than 500 employees, most of whom work in the conservation programs that have been hit hard by recent budget cuts.

The agency is the first to begin downsizing its workforce as Congress warns of tight budgets and targets discretionary programs. The Office of Personnel Management approved the buyouts -- as well as early retirement packages -- on May 13, but a spokeswoman did not respond to inquiries on whether other agencies have made similar requests.

USDA is already functioning under a tight budget, thanks to the elimination of funding in the current spending bill for several programs that help local governments with conservation and watershed operations. The Obama administration's 2012 budget proposal goes even further, cutting all previous earmarks for conservation operations and trimming $2.5 billion from mandatory conservation programs over the life of the current farm bill.

A USDA official said the buyouts and early retirements will help the agency handle the budget cuts without sacrificing services.

"We are working to manage the cuts with minimal impact to our conservation delivery system," the official said. "We will continue to provide the same exemplary conservation assistance to our customers as we have for the past 75 years. At the same time, difficult decisions were required in a number of USDA programs and projects in order to absorb funding reductions."


USDA officials offered more than 400 of the 544 buyouts to employees in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a department that saw funding eliminated this year from its Resource Conservation and Development Program and its Watershed Operations programs. The former helps rural areas develop programs for resource conservation; the latter provides technical and financial assistance for upgrading and removing dams.

In a recent appropriations hearing on the fiscal 2012 budget, NRSC chief Dave White said the operations and maintenance of the federally built dams "has long been understood to be the responsibility of local project sponsors," according to his written testimony. As for the Resource Conservation and Development program, other USDA agencies will carry the weight, he said.

Called Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments, the buyouts provide employees with a lump sum of up to $25,000 if they resign. Agriculture also offered a departmentwide Voluntary Early Retirement Authority; the early retirement option allows employees to voluntarily retire and immediately receive annuity if they have 20 years of service at age 50 or 25 years of service at any age.

Officials expect less than 1 percent of employees to take the early retirements, based on past offers. Agriculture spokesman Matt Herrick said the buyouts and early retirements reflect the agency's "proactive approach" to minimizing the impact of budget cuts on the workforce.

The agency indicated that it might offer more buyouts and early retirements in the future if needed, though officials did not provide details on what steps the agency would take if not enough employees took those offers to make up for the budget cuts.

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