36 ag jobs saved by union vote, department to look at program cuts

Tuesday, December 8, 2009
(Photo by Anitra Wolf) Iowa Sec. of Agriculture Bill Northey says the Department of Agriculture is operating with the lowest number of employees in 20 years and at the same budget level as it did in 1994. Northey recently spent some time in the Lakes Corridor at his farm two miles east of Spirit Lake. He completed his 2009 harvest Thanksgiving week.

As he trudges through the mud at his farm east of Spirit Lake, one has to wonder if Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is drawing comparisons to the muddy condition of Iowa's finances.

"We'll do what we have to do," he says with a glint of optimism. "Our businesses and citizens in the state are hurting because of the current economy, so obviously the state has less money as well."


After a 15 percent cut earlier this year took the Department of Agriculture's budget from $22 million to $18.7 million, October's across-the-board budget cuts took out another $1.87 million from the department's funding.

"We're now at $16.8 million, which is the same level of funding the department got in 1994 so we have to stretch our dollars pretty far," said Northey. "We're spending actually a little bit less than what we did 16 years ago."

Today, 364 employees are staffed with the Iowa Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for a wide variety of consumer protection and agriculture promotion programs. This includes regulating meat processing, commercial feed and fertilizer, pesticide application, and dairy production and processing. The state's climatologist, entomologist, horticulturalist and veterinarian are also all part of the department, along with the Division of Soil Conservation which provides farmers with expertise and funds to help them install practices that preserve Iowa's highly productive soil, prevent erosion and protect critical waterways.

"Seventy-eight percent of our expenses are personnel expenses - salary and benefits," said Northey. "Another 5 percent is the vehicles our inspectors need and 7 percent is our facilities... The vast majority of cuts have to be people."


After the October cuts were announced, the department was poised to cut 10 percent of its employees as a result, but the department was able to avoid 36 layoffs due to the announcement Monday, Nov. 30, that members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) voted to approve five furlough days and other concessions by contract covered employees this fiscal year.

The department did lay off two employees on Dec. 2; Both were members of Iowa United Professionals (IUP) union and were employed with the department's Animal Industry Bureau and the Department's laboratory facility in Ankeny.

No more layoffs are expected by the Department for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2010.

"Layoffs have been our last resort, but due to the significant cuts, the department has faced this was our only option," Northey said. "With these layoffs, the mandatory leave without pay for employees and the positions that have been left unfilled, the services that are able to be provided by the department will likely be affected."

The department handled the previous 15 percent cut by not filling 37 open positions, three permanent layoffs, and mandatory leave without pay for the department's 38 non-contract employees.


Along with the recently approved furlough days, the department is also finding other ways to squeeze the most out of its ever decreasing budget.

"We have cut other areas including travel and the amount of travel some of our folks do," said Northey. "A lot of our folks are inspectors, and they do need to travel throughout the state, but our out-of-state travel has been cut down."

Northey said the department made another change with the location of the state's metrologist.

"We moved the state metrologist, who is our top weights and measures person that certifies weights," said Northey. "He worked for the Department of Agriculture. Now he's going to work for a community college in Iowa Falls. They're going to add a weights and measures program."

Northey said the metrologist will continue to perform functions for the department, but his repositioning will save the department approximately $100,000 in salary, space and equipment.

Other cuts include $90,000 from the Iowa Farmers Market Nutrition Program, $20,000 from the Farm to School Program, a $34,000 reduction in reimbursement for expenses to soil district commissioners and a $25,000 cut to Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) and Gypsy Moth eradication programs.


After taking a deep cut in April and seeing the elimination of all County Extension Education Director positions, ISU Extension officials say they aren't feeling quite the burn this time around.

"This newest round of cuts haven't affected the county paid staff directly, but it has affected those paid by the university," said Cheryl Heronemus, ISU Extension Regional Director for Clay, Dickinson, Osceola, O'Brien, Lyon and Sioux counties. "University paid people include the program specialists, like Paul Kassel, Jane Goeken, Jan Burk and Dennis DeWit (as well as myself)."

"All of us will be required to take furlough days between now and June 30," said Heronemus. "The number of days varies depending on salary. The impact on the local office will be that these furloughed people will have less presence in the county office. This often puts more pressure on the staff that are left to answer the questions in their absence. It's my impression that where program specialists have programs scheduled, they will try to keep their commitments in spite of the furloughs."

ISU Field Specialist and Ag Engineer Kris Kohl is based in the Storm Lake ISU Extension Office and says the October cut means six furlough days for him.

"This is a 4.8 percent cut in pay that will be evenly distributed in the first 6 months of 2010 and a 20 percent reduction in the contribution to my retirement account," said Kohl. "We will take the days off in a way that will be the least disrupting for the public... We are public servants, and we plan to do what is necessary to continue to serve them to the best of our ability until we get through this economic challenge. While this is a new problem for us, it is nothing new for our farmer clients who are losing money each day caring for their livestock. When the ag sector of our economy returns to profitable returns the current state tax problems will go away. It is our jobs to help producers in any way that can help that happen as fast as possible. Currently livestock returns do not cover the expenses."


As a field specialist, Kohl says his time and travel expenses are spread thin these days.

"Before we had one county director in each county to plan and program for the needs of that county," said Kohl. "Today we have one regional director who now covers six counties doing that same job. My job now covers 25 percent more counties with 11 percent less travel money. We are asking producers to help with travel cost for individual help at a rate of $40 a trip to help extend our funds. The citizens of Iowa have supported their Extension Service and currently they are hurting and need our support and understanding."

The Iowa department of Land Stewardship is seeing some shortages as well.

"Our cost share programs -- grass waterways and terraces where the state pays half -- those funds have not been reduced," said Northey. "What has been reduced is the amount of funds we have for the people (employees) to actually put those practices on the land. Our challenge is to get all the design work done and get them put in. It looks like we'll still have the same dollars to cost share those practices, but we've lost people to design those practices."


After two consecutive years of difficult budget shortages, Northey says the department is already starting to look at the effects of another budget cut.

"This next session looks tough again," he said. "There are various projections about how we might be short for budget year 2010. If next year we're short another 500 million, there may be another 10 percent of the budget. We don't know. Certainly we're going to make the case that ag has taken a lot of cuts, and it's an important part of the state and an important part of our economy, but there are not enough dollars to go around."

While cuts so far haven't taken a great toll on the department's program offerings, additional cuts may force Northey and other officials to carefully scrutinize the programs of the department.

"If we get more cuts, we've got to look at doing less," said Northey. "Certainly we need to keep our food inspection, meat inspection, and dairy inspection. We need to keep some of our state vets offices, our animal health care issues. On the same token, we've got to be as efficient as we can and look at things we can maybe do less of or maybe stop doing all together. In the coming months, we'll take a look at each program and create a plan."

* Next in the Series: Courts

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