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Proposal to merge FSA offices is back

February 07, 2006|by ARNOLD S. PLATOU

arnoldp@herald-mail.com

A proposal to merge local Farm Service Agency offices, hastily abandoned last year amid outrage from farmers and Congress, is back on the table again, officials said.

This time, FSA officials are promising to be much less aggressive --- even as they point out that the offices have too few trained employees and some computers so old they can't connect to the Internet.

"I sincerely believe we can restructure and do a better job," Teresa Lasseter, the new Farm Service Agency administrator for the U.S., told The Associated Press.

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"I don't want to close offices just to be closing offices. The only reason we would be closing offices is to provide better service."

There are 21 FSA offices in Maryland, including ones in Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland.

Elizabeth Anderson, executive director for FSA in Maryland, told The Herald-Mail on Monday that her office has been asked to review FSA's operation throughout the state.

But, Anderson said, her instructions are much different from those given last year.

Then, she was told the "number of offices that they wanted us to look at consolidating" and a deadline was given, Anderson said. She said a Maryland committee was formed and had begun its review last fall when the opposition arose nationally and the proposal was scrapped.

She said Maryland's review was not to the point of recommending any changes in Western Maryland, but that "is really a moot point now" because this time, the process is to be different.

This time, she said, FSA's national office gave her "no deadline and no numbers. We have no targeted numbers. They just want us to look at our offices... and put together a proposal to see how we can best service the producers of our state."

Anderson said she will form a study panel to do this. She said the membeers will include her state committee and others, but she is not to the point of knowing who just yet.

Neither Colleen Cashell, executive director of FSA's office in Washington County, or members of its county committee could be reached for comment Monday.

Lasseter told The Associated Press that no changes will happen without public hearings and talks with Congress, and state-level officials will have significant control over where cuts are made.

The local office is essential to a farmer's bottom line. Producers must visit there to sign up for an array of government payments and loans.

More than 2,300 counties - virtually every rural county in the nation - have a Farm Service Agency Office. But that is no guarantee it will be open on a given day, or that a farmer will find answers in a single visit.

A business wouldn't operate that way, said Keith Widdowson, who runs the Somerset and Worcester county offices in Maryland. The offices on the Eastern Shore are 18 miles apart with two employees each.

If one staffer leaves, the other must juggle farmers lined up at the counter and tend the phones alone - and be an expert on dozens of different programs.

"It's not an efficient way to run the office," Widdowson told The Associated Press. "It worked years ago, when we had enough staff, but not anymore."

Merging might mean a longer drive for some farmers, but the result would be better, faster service, he said.

Still, many farmers can't get past the idea of a longer drive.

"It would mean we'd lose valuable time trying to go to an office that's far away," said Brinsfield Lowe, who grows soybeans, corn and vegetables farther north in Dorchester County. Sometimes only one employee is working at his local office, in Cambridge, but Lowe thinks he gets good service.

Amy Farrell worries about the idea of merging the offices she runs in Calvert and St. Mary's counties because some producers there would face a 90-minute drive. Still, Farrell is reassured that state-level officials, not Washington bureaucrats, are being asked to design an overhaul.

"We've built up a good trust with all our farmers and producers, and if we can understand why we may have to consolidate, we can make the farmers understand why we have to consolidate," she said.

It was Washington bureaucrats who handed down the order last fall that 713 offices, more than 30 percent, would have to close.

Maryland and five other states - Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia - would have seen the biggest cuts, with 40 percent or more offices closed.

In Congress, word leaked before most lawmakers were briefed, and they reacted with alarm, passing legislation that blocked any closures without public hearings or notice to Congress.

Lasseter was not yet on board at the Agriculture Department. But as a former county and state FSA official in Georgia, she was not a fan of last year's plan. "It was a bit aggressive," she said.

By no stretch of the imagination is this latest plan the same, she said.

Lasseter's boss, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, said there won't be consolidation without involvement from lawmakers. "We'll work with Congress. We heard the message, and we heard it loud and clear," he told reporters recently.

Lawmakers are receptive so far.

"This is the kind of approach they should have taken from the beginning," said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., sponsor of the measure to block the closings. "What you've got to do is make certain the process isn't hijacked at some point from Washington."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he's cautious but open to the idea. "I never said no to reorganization last year," he said. "I only said what a screwy way of bringing this to our attention."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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