Clark County employer likely closing down

The doors soon could close on one of Clark County’s largest employers.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack recently informed Congress he was closing the Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois. The station’s 21 full-time employees hold about 5 percent of the 423 full-time jobs in the county.

The decision was announced Friday.

Vilsack didn’t return calls from the Post Register on Wednesday. But in a June 17 letter to Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, chairman for the subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations, Vilsack said the station had become a financial liability.

“A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at (the sheep experiment station), and the unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research,” Vilsack said in the letter.

If the station does close, 17 of the 21 full-time employees will be offered jobs elsewhere, the letter said. They expect to get new assignments July 3. Employees planning to retire would work their last day Oct. 3.

The station would close Nov. 3, the letter said.

“I’m against it,” County Commissioner William Frederiksen said.

In the letter to Aderholt, Vilsack estimated facility disposal and employee relocation fees to range from $3.5 million to nearly $5 million, depending on how many employees seek relocation.

Assuming the station closes, its $1.9 million budget for 2015 would be divvied up, according to Vilsack’s letter.

About $844,000 would go to strengthen the sugar-beet industry in Kimberly. Another $500,00 would be funneled to germplasm research in Aberdeen, while $640,000 would be designated for the Northwest Watershed Research Center in Boise.

Bret Taylor, acting research leader at the station, said Wednesday that he was not permitted to comment on the decision. But in emails obtained by the Post Register between Taylor and others, Taylor indicated he was caught off guard.

“In all honesty, I expected some announcement relating to program mergers/reorganizations within the (Agricultural Research Service) or in conjunction with the University of Idaho. I never anticipated what (it) initiated this week.”

Congress has a 30-day window, which began Friday, in which to voice their support or opposition to Vilsack’s decision.

Idaho politicians are against the move.

“We are in the process of gathering information and expressing our concerns, and quite frankly, our opposition to it closing,” said John Revier, a spokesman for Rep. Mike Simpson. “We believe this was a surprise and believe it could have a significant economic impact — and very much want to take any course of action we can to stop the decision.”

Lindsay Northern, communications director for Sen. Mike Crapo, echoed Revier’s concern.

“We aren’t happy about the closure,” Northern said.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said the station is facing closure because it loses about $1.5 million a year. Otter said he will protest the closure decision.

“We are to resist that,” he said. “We want to keep it open. The sheep business is big business in Idaho and will continue to be big business in Idaho, we hope.”

Closure of the station would deal another blow to the Clark County economy. In 2009, Idahoan Foods closed its plant near Dubois, which employed 22 percent of the county’s labor force.

“It’s just another huge knock,” Clark County Clerk Velvet Killian said.

The University of Idaho long has collaborated with the station and owns the 1,800 sheep at the facility. John Foltz, the university’s dean of the Agriculture and Life Science, also was caught off guard by the Vilsack decision.

“We didn’t know this was coming,” he said. “Ultimately, (the agency decides) where is the best place for the resources.”

Foltz, an agricultural economist, said there is no doubt Clark County will take a hit.

“When you’ve got rural communities … that rely on some key employers, it’s fairly significant,” he said. “I think it needs to be taken into consideration. Obviously, it’s important to the county and the state. But you have to balance that with (Agricultural Research Service’s) budget. If you ask me, (the sheep station is) vitally important to Clark County. It will have an impact.”

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