USDA decides on new research HQ location

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Agriculture Department today announced the final location — in downtown Kansas City, Mo. — for its two research agencies being moved out of the nation’s capital.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today signed a lease for office space at 805 Pennsylvania Ave. in Kansas City, ending speculation about where the department was planning to put the agencies and whether it would be in Missouri or Kansas.

The downtown location beat out the Sprint campus in Overland Park, Kan., as a home for what could eventually be several hundred employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service.

A majority of the research agencies’ employees declined to move.

Perdue said in a statement that the decision would “provide clarity on commute times and work-life balance for our employees,” referencing the uncertainty workers faced even as they moved to the area over in recent months.

Employees have been working in USDA office space in Kansas City awaiting a final decision.

Some workers relocated in the summer, with final moves made by the end of September. But most employees at both agencies declined the relocation offer, forcing USDA to fill dozens of vacant positions in the months ahead.

“Signing this lease is an important next step to facilitate their long-term efficiency, effectiveness, and service to our customers,” Perdue said. “The region is not only a hub for agriculture in America’s heartland, but is also already proving to be a diverse talent pool in proximity to many land-grant and research universities.”

The department has said the move will save as much as $300 million over 15 years, through lower rent than the government was paying in Washington and because the two agencies can be located together.

The selection of a final site should quell one criticism of the move: that employees were being forced to find new homes, and in some cases settle into new school districts, without knowing whether they would be working in Kansas or Missouri, for instance.

Other controversies persist, including criticism from congressional Democrats that the disruption has damaged the agencies’ abilities to produce research and reports on time.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, has said she worries that work on climate change may be compromised, as it conflicts with some of the Trump administration’s political messaging.

But USDA officials have said the money saved through the relocation will go into such work, expanding the agencies’ capabilities.

An annual spending bill for agriculture programs moving through Congress addresses the issue.

A Republican-written Senate version being considered today would devote $25 million to the relocation. The Democratic-led House would place limits on the relocation, including cutting off funding.

A House-Senate conference committee will sort out final language.

Some positions at ERS and NIFA aren’t being relocated.

Out of 329 total ERS positions, the department said, 76 positions remain in Washington, while 253 positions are in Kansas City.

Out of 344 total NIFA positions, 21 positions remain in Washington while 323 are in Kansas City.