Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a major reorganization plan Tuesday. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In the most aggressive reorganization of a non-security agency announced to date, the Agriculture Department unveiled plans Tuesday to close 259 domestic offices across the country and seven overseas offices, mostly in tiny rural farming communities that will be served by other nearby locations.

The closures are part of plans to save about $150 million annually in the department’s $145 billion budget. Already $90 million has been saved by cutting travel and supplies; the closures could save up to $60 million, officials said.

But the move also affects thousands of USDA jobs and comes after nearly 7,000 department employees accepted buyouts or early retirement offers in the last 15 months. Thousands of more workers may soon accept offers to leave, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a message to employees.

“This was a very difficult choice, but it was critical in order to limit workforce reductions and avoid furloughs,” Vilsack said in an e-mail sent Monday. “We have done everything feasible to minimize the impact on employees. While some may see longer commutes or even be asked to relocate, it is our hope that very few employees – or perhaps none – will be let go because of these office closings. We are working to make sure that all permanent federal employees will be given options to stay with the department.”

In the federal government, buyouts and early retirements are formally known as VSIPs and VERAs — Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority.

By law, federal agencies other than the Defense Department must receive buyout authority from OPM before offering early outs. As part of spending legislation passed last month, agencies must pay a new retirement application processing fee of $107.62 to OPM for each employee who accepts an early out or buyout offer and retires.

There is no government-wide mechanism to track how many federal employees have accepted early outs, but about two dozen agencies have offered them in recent months.

The General Services Administration became the latest on Tuesday when it applied to the Office of Personnel Management for the authority to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to up to 650 of its 13,000 employees nationwide.

Eligible employees work at several sites in the Washington area and in California and New Jersey, according to spokesman Adam Elkington. He said the offers would be a “win-win for eligible employees thinking about retiring or leaving federal service” if OPM approves the request.

Non-security agencies aren’t the only ones cutting jobs: The Air Force also announced this month a second round of early retirement and buyouts in hopes of cutting 4,500 jobs. About 1,000 civilian Air Force employees accepted buyouts or early outs during the first round of offers that ended in December; a hiring freeze also helped cut nearly 9,000 positions. Last month the Army announced plans to slash 8,700 civilian jobs — a move first announced last summer as the White House and lawmakers agreed to trim the defense budget.

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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