Politics & Government

Decision on USDA office relocations coming within ‘days and weeks,’ ag secretary says

Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, said his department plans to choose a landing spot for two U.S. Department of Agriculture offices within “days and weeks,” a decision that could have ramifications for the Triangle.

The Research Triangle region is one of the final contenders to land the offices of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — two agencies that could net the area around 700 jobs.

The USDA named the “Research Triangle” region last month as one of four potential locations for the offices. The other contenders are Indiana (the Indianapolis region) as well as either Kansas or Missouri (the greater Kansas City area).

“I have tried to distance myself from that” decision, Perdue told reporters during a tour of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh. We’re “looking for recommendations obviously. But I don’t want to put my thumb on the scale in those kind of things.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, tours the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh on Tuesday, June 4. He was joined by N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, left, and N.C. Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, middle. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

Perdue — who worked in Wake County as a veterinarian in the 1970s — confirmed that USDA has taken a site visit to the Triangle, though he didn’t say where the site visit was or when it took place.

While making a joke about North Carolina basketball, Perdue added that he thought the Triangle had a lot of qualities the USDA is looking for.

“Carolina being in the final four — that has never happened before, right?” he said. “Obviously, you all who live here know what makes this area attractive. You have a great quality of life; you’ve got the laborshed from the Research Triangle Park; you’ve got the universities and academics here and it is just a great place to live. Those are the qualities we are looking for.”

He also noted that the area’s high-tech industry was a plus for the potential relocation.

Concerns about a relocation

The decision to relocate the two offices, which conduct research on farms and agriculture and provide grant funding, has proven to be controversial since Perdue made it last year.

Critics of the move are worried about the ability of the offices to retain talent, keep their research independent and remain relevant to policy makers in Washington, D.C., if they are located hundreds of miles away.

Rebecca Boehm, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she is concerned that the move would “do more harm than good.”

“We are concerned that physically moving staffers away from key policy makers across the government would limit the impact of their work,” she told The News & Observer in a phone interview.

She noted that the Trump administration has also suggested budget cuts to the offices and worried that if it is moved those budget cuts might be easier to pass through Congress.

She added, “This seemed like an attack on science, and we have seen the Trump administration do that in other parts of the government.”

There’s also concern among current employees that if the relocation goes through, the two offices could lose many experienced workers who have lived in the D.C. area for decades and don’t want to uproot their lives.

“As soon as we are in a new location, that is when the institutional knowledge will go down,” Laura Dodson, an economist at the ERS, told The N&O in a phone interview. “We have so many economists that have worked on these (topics) for years.”

She said on one team at the ERS, five of the eight members have quit in the past four months. A report from political news site Politico noted last month that “non-retirement departures” from the organization have more than doubled so far this year and that six economists left in April “out of frustration with the relocation process,” according to unnamed co-workers at the organization.

Dodson said morale is low and the office is like a “graveyard.”

“Within the agency, 99% say that this is terrible,” she said. “It is going to destroy the agency, destroy science, wreck families and wreck homes.”

Perdue admitted that there has been some concern about the move from staffers.

“There has been some concern all along, I don’t know about a backlash,” he said in response to a question about concerned ERS workers. “They have been very vocal obviously. But anytime you make change and you move people’s cheese, there’s always anxiety. We believe when people are in these locations, whether it is here in the RTP area or it’s in the Indianapolis area, (or) Kansas City, Missouri ... people are going to discover a great quality of life, just like you know here.”

In North Carolina, government workers have expressed similar concerns about the state Division of Motor Vehicles’ plans to move out of Raleigh and into Rocky Mount. That move is happening partly because of decisions in the legislature, and the state Senate’s budget proposal would move the Department of Health and Human Services out of Raleigh as well.

In the case of the DMV relocation, more than half of workers at the agency’s Raleigh headquarters who responded to a question about their plans if the agency moves to Rocky Mount said they would look for another job, The News & Observer previously reported.

Reaction in Congress

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said last month he is a supporter of the USDA’s relocation efforts and applauded the agency for considering his home state.

“It’s a testament to North Carolina’s agriculture industry and our public university system that the Research Triangle is among the three finalists for the relocation of ERS and NIFA,” Tillis said in a letter to the USDA. “Since it was first announced, I have supported USDA’s plans to bring federal resources closer to stakeholders. I applaud USDA for considering North Carolina and I will continue to support USDA as it makes a final decision.”

But there has also been some push back from the U.S. House about the USDA relocations.

The House Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing this week to discuss the potential relocation of the offices. Additionally, an appropriations bill allocated $87.8 million for the ERS’s budget, but that bill also included language that would forbid those funds from being used to relocate the ERS, The New York Times reported.

This is the second government office that North Carolina has publicly competed for in the past year. Last year, Raleigh attempted to land the new U.S. Army Futures Command Center, an Army headquarters assigned the development of new missiles, cannons, tanks and aircraft for modern warfare. That would’ve brought about 500 staffers, but Raleigh narrowly lost out to Austin, Texas, for the expansion.

North Carolina put incentives on the table, specifically an offer of three years’ worth of free rent for office space on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, in its unsuccessful bid for the Army office. It’s unclear at the moment whether incentives will play a part in the USDA relocation, and the state’s Commerce Department has declined to comment about the recruitment of the USDA offices.

Around 136 locations across 35 states expressed interest in the USDA offices after the original request for qualification was put out by the USDA.

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