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Ag Department to Cut 60 Workers

posted on March 18, 2011

The commissioner of the state's agriculture department has started notifying about 60 workers they will be laid off to make cuts necessary to balance the budget.

Commissioner John McMillan said the department informed 17 people this week that they were being laid off and that he expects more people to be informed next week. Those employees will remain on the payroll through April.

"It's deeply troubling, but we have had no other choice but to reduce staff," McMillan said.

The department had 390 employees before layoffs.

McMillan said he is trying to cut personnel without affecting the departments that handle food safety and consumer protection. For instance, he said he is eliminating the two-person international trade section.

"Everybody is going to be affected, but the ones that are going to be most dramatically affected are the parts of the department that do not deal with regulatory issues," McMillan said.

The commissioner said international trade is "mighty important," but not as important as the department's duties inspecting poultry flocks and meat processors in the state to try to detect any instances of avian flu, hoof and mouth disease, or any other disease or danger.

The department, as evidenced by the Alabama-shaped stickers throughout the state, is also responsible for inspecting gas pumps and scales such as those used in grocery stores.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries is responsible for regulating the state's $5 billion agriculture and agribusiness industries.

The agriculture department is in the bottom tier of priorities for Gov. Robert Bentley's administration. In that tier, all departments or agencies are cut at least 45 percent.

McMillan said he knew when he entered the office in January that "we had some challenges, but I didn't have any idea." He said he was expecting about 10 percent proration in the General Fund this year and cuts of about 15 percent for the 2012 budget.

Instead, most agencies in the General Fund, which provides money for most non-education entities including Medicaid, prisons and public safety, are facing 15 percent proration, which are across-the-board cuts declared by the governor to balance the budget.

McMillan said that proration led to an immediate cut of $2.3 million and that the department faces another $4.7 million cut in the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

During the current fiscal year, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries was appropriated $15.4 million from the General Fund. Bentley suggested cutting the budget for 2012 to $8.4 million.

"I had no idea we would see the kind of cuts we're gonna have to deal with," the commissioner said.

These could be the first substantive departmental cuts announced in what is expected to be widespread layoffs due to cuts statewide aimed at balancing the budget. Most state officials expected employee layoffs in agencies in the General Fund.

McMillan said he has been upfront with employees since he took office in January that the department was in poor financial health.

He said the department has four diagnostic labs. McMillan said most people do not realize that producers in the state process almost 22 million chickens a week and that there must be a blood sample tested from each flock.

McMillan said there are also 80 meat-testing facilities. When companies are processing meat, the department must have an inspector there at all times, he said.

Those entities, McMillan said, "are taking less of a hit."

"Unfortunately, I don't think the general public or a lot of other branches of government realize the responsibilities we have out there in the areas of food safety and consumer protection," he said. "That is unfortunate because we are going to have to give up some territories in those areas."

When asked if those cuts could have a detrimental effect on public safety, McMillan said "it just depends."

"If we should have a fowl or animal die that has hoof and mouth or avian flu or whatever, it could almost shut down the state's poultry industry," he said. "It is just real important that we try to keep those sections as normal as we can."

McMillan said he brought four employees with him when he started as commissioner including at least one that worked for his campaign.

"The people that I brought in I chose very carefully for their knowledge and experience with the intent of making a good many changes in the department," he said. McMillan said he wanted them to help analyze and evaluate issues at the department.

"They have the ability to work hard. They are going to have to shoulder a lot more of the load, as is everybody that will still be out there."

McMillan said he is comfortable with what the remaining staff will be able to accomplish and said he still plans to take the department "apart piece by piece and fix things that have to be fixed."

The commissioner said there are areas where computers can be implemented so that not as much work is being done manually.

"These folks I brought in with me are going to be the people to implement those kind of plans," McMillan said.

McMillan said about 60 people will be notified this week and next, and then they will evaluate the situation. He expects the layoffs to trigger some retirements from people who are eligible and possibly from people who would rather retire than have a larger workload or see a friend laid off.

McMillan said they will see how many retirements there are after the first two rounds of layoffs.

He is also hopeful that the Legislature will vote to allow employee furloughs, where agencies require employees to take mandatory time off without pay to save money without firing employees. Lawmakers previously blocked efforts to allow furloughs, which were opposed by the Alabama State Employees Association. But Republicans have since taken control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century.

Retirements and furloughs will be two factors in whether there are more layoffs, McMillan said.

McMillan said he did not know how much money the 60 layoffs would save the department.

He said in a statement Thursday morning that he expected a third round of layoffs after the first two.

McMillan said they "pretty much know who will be included in the next round" of layoffs and some of those people have been told already.

He also said that he or an assistant commissioner have met personally with each of the employees about their termination and did not inform them through a less-personal or informal way. McMillan said they are trying to answer their questions and let them know about other possible options, including possibly finding other jobs in state government.

McMillan had originally intended to close farmers' markets operated by the state to save money because they were losing $300,000 a year. He said they are reworking the leases and hope to be able to make about $60,000 in revenue from the markets.

The expenses of keeping the facilities open and staffed year-round are going to be shifted to private businesses, McMillan said.

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