Ag agency cuts positions, programs to keep fees in check
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- The majority of agricultural producers in the Gem State have not been asked to pay higher fees to make up for steep cuts to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's budget.
"We've tried our level best to do everything within our control to keep these cuts from adversely impacting agriculture," ISDA Director Celia Gould said. "I think we've held on pretty well and taken care of the critical services that people need."
Since fiscal 2008, the amount of money the department receives from the state's general fund has shrunk from $16.23 million to $6.48 million for fiscal 2012. While about $7 million of that reduction is due to the loss of one-time money directed toward noxious weed programs, the department has had to find ways to deal with the loss of millions of dollars in state funding.
The department, which oversees 50 programs that touch virtually every aspect of agriculture in Idaho, has cut or reduced programs and eliminated positions to deal with the loss of funding.
The department has trimmed the amount of money going to its noxious weed program and reduced its water testing and range management services. The ISDA reduced its range positions from three to one, which is a problem when cattlemen are facing an increasing number of lawsuits from environmental groups, Gould said.
"All of our programs have taken some heavy hits," she said. "We just continue to patch the holes in the fence with old wire as best we can."
The department receives about 25 percent of its total funding from the state's general fund. The majority of funding comes from fees assessed directly to people being regulated or receiving services, which theoretically puts more pressure on producers.
However, Gould said the department has been able to deal with its reduced funding, and 95 percent of the people the ISDA serves are not paying higher fees as a result of the budget cuts.
The 5 percent paying more include the fresh fruit sector, which previously was subsidized by the ISDA but is now paying higher fees for inspections.
"We just can't subsidize any of our programs because of the cuts in funding," Gould said.
Some agricultural sectors are immune to the cuts because of how the programs that serve or regulate them are set up. For example, the reductions are having no impact on the dairy sector because the industry's butterfat assessment pays for the ISDA's dairy programs.
The ISDA will receive $131,000 less in state funding in 2012 compared with 2011. That will result in $2,000 less for the Idaho Sheep Commission, $35,000 less for the state's noxious weed program and a $74,600 reduction in personnel costs.
The department didn't request fee increases in fiscal 2012, said Kelly Nielsen, the ISDA's chief financial officer.
The new chairman of the Idaho House's Agricultural Affairs Committee said he's impressed with how the ISDA has handled its reduced funding.
"They didn't complain about it, even though they were down to the bare bones pretty much," said Rep. Ken Andrus, a rancher from Lava Hot Springs. "They said, 'We realize the economy is bad,' and they went about their duties."
The ISDA has also experienced cuts in federal funding -- the department spent $5.49 million in federal money in fiscal 2011 versus $6.33 million in 2009 -- but those cuts only impact the programs that are funded by those grants, Nielsen said.
"The future is still uncertain when it comes to the federal grants," he said.
Idaho State Department of Agriculture: www.agri.idaho.gov