USDA cutting staff, closing offices as floods damage small town water, sewer and housing


The arm of the federal department that assists small towns with infrastructure and housing programs is reducing its Minnesota workforce.

As flood waters wreak havoc with small town water and sewer systems and destroy rural housing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is closing offices and cutting staff in Minnesota as part of a reorganization of its Rural Development operations.

USDA Rural Development, the arm of the federal department that assists small towns with infrastructure and housing programs, is reducing its Minnesota workforce by nearly 9 percent. This means about 10 positions will be lost. The agency is also closing its Faribault and Austin offices and moving them to Owatonna. The Faribault and Austin offices serve the southern and southeastern counties of Minnesota that were among the worst flooded areas of the state.

Doug Altrichter, assistant to the state director of USDA Rural Development in St. Paul, said the cuts will come through attrition and not by firings. Moreover, he said, the planned consolidation into an Owatonna office will keep the same number of people working on Rural Development programs in southern Minnesota.

“No one is losing his job,” he insisted.

While that may be, the workload for Rural Development personnel is about to explode. Communities stretching from South Dakota and Nebraska into Ohio are experiencing severe flooding. Law enforcement agencies report 23 deaths associated with the floods, including seven deaths in southeastern Minnesota.

More rain is forecast across the flood region until late this week. The National Weather Service has large areas of the affected region under a flood watch and a few isolated flood warnings are in effect in several communities.

While the Department of Homeland Security is the lead federal agency working with state and local officials in flood areas, rural America turns to USDA Rural Development for repair and rebuilding of basic water and sewer services after disasters. Rural Development also has rural housing programs for farms and small towns.

Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., said community leaders in flooded areas should do a quick assessment of the extent of damage to their water and sewer systems and get applications for assistance filed with USDA as quickly as possible.

The U.S. Senate will begin debate on the 2007 multi-year federal farm program when it returns from recess in September. It is possible that the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will be able to include mandates for repairing flooded infrastructure in the farm bill.

Harkin also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where provisions of the new farm program receive funding. The House of Representatives passed its version of the new farm bill in July. Whether there is new funding or even maintenance of existing programs at current funding levels will depend on the House Appropriations Committee, Hassebrook said.

The current cutbacks in offices and staff for USDA Rural Development in Minnesota is part of a nationwide reorganization of USDA offices in various states that affect farm services, conservation and rural development programs.

In addition of the Austin and Faribault offices, current plans also call for closing rural development offices in Buffalo, Waite Park and Duluth.