The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released Blueprint for Stronger Service, a plan that, according to the press release, “helps producers continue to drive America's economy by streamlining operations and cutting costs,” after a Department-wide review of its operations as part of the Administration’s campaign to make government work more efficiently. USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area (RD) component of the Rural Housing Services is slated to lose 43 area and sub offices in 17 states.
The Blueprint is comprised of fact sheets pertaining to specific USDA program areas. According to the RD Fact Sheet, in most cases, offices recommended for closure are either not staffed or staffed with just one or two employees. In other cases, improved technology has reduced the need for these brick and mortar facilities. USDA notes that more than 450 offices will remain open.
The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) points out that in 1980, the RHS predecessor Farmer’s Home Administration (FmHA) had 46 state offices, 264 district offices, and 1,904 county offices. By 1998 after FmHA had been combined with USDA business and utilities staff, RD had only 815 county offices.
According to HAC, before 1994, FmHA had an office in almost every rural county in the country, giving it a unique local presence that made its programs accessible to rural residents, even those without telephones. More recently, however, RD has drifted from its original mission and philosophy. RD officials have called the agency “rural America’s venture capital firm.” At the same time, cost-saving measures have already led to consolidation of many field offices. Clients are now served by regional offices covering numerous counties, loan servicing is centralized in a single national office, and the agency’s clients are encouraged to communicate electronically. These changes have not benefited low income rural residents or their community organizations, according to HAC.
HAC wrote to the Obama Administration, urging that further consolidation of RD field offices be avoided. “Centralization works well for RD’s multifamily programs, when the agency’s customers are for-profit or nonprofit housing developers, and for water/sewer programs. But rural families needing RD assistance to purchase or repair their homes should be served by people who live near them and share their culture, at least until universal access to high-speed internet and computers are achieved, as well as universal ability to use them. In addition, local offices can implement flexible policies to serve local conditions. Therefore servicing for the Section 502 and 504 programs should remain in local offices.”
The states and the counties within them which will see office closures are:
1. Alabama: Houston County
2. Arizona: Mohave County
3. Arkansas: Izard, Faulkner, Hot Spring, White, and Sevier Counties
4. Delaware: Kent and Sussex Counties
5. Hawaii: a) Kosrae, Chuuk, and Yap, and b) Hawaii County
6. Indiana: Monroe, Tippecanoe, LaPorte, and Marshall Counties
7. Louisiana: Livingston County
8. Maryland: Calvert, Garrett, and Worcester Counties
9. Mississippi: DeSoto County
10. Missouri: Jasper, Jefferson, Cape Girardeau, and Cole Counties
11. North Carolina: Burke, Chowan, and Caswell Counties
12. Oklahoma: Pushmataha and Pittsburg Counties
13. Pennsylvania: Juniata County
14. South Carolina: Richland and Sumter Counties
15. Tennessee: Anderson, Bedford, Bledsoe, Cannon, Carter, Cocke, Humphreys, Sevier, and Trousdale Counties
16. Virginia: Essex County
17. Wyoming: Park County
The Blueprint for Stronger Service website is at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=blueprint_for_stronger_service.html. The RD Fact Sheet is at http://www.usda.gov/documents/BPSS-Factsheet-RD.pdf.
The Housing Assistance Council website is http://www.ruralhome.org. See two items under “What’s New.”