Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fate of Oconee County’s Campbell Conservation Research Center in Hands of Conference Committee

Kingston Key

A joint Congressional House-Senate Conference Committee is expected to report out early this week its version of the appropriations bill that funds Agricultural Research Service facilities such as the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center outside Watkinsville.

The bill is likely to seal the fate of the Center and determine the procedures for disposing of the property once ARS brings the operation at the Watkinsville research facility to a close.

The Conference Committee will have to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of a bill to fund agriculture programs in the current fiscal year. The bill the Committee reports out will have to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by President Barack Obama.

President Obama, in the budget he proposed to Congress in February, allocated a little more than $1.1 billion to the ARS and closed 10 facilities around the country, including the Campbell Center.

The House voted to provide $993 million in funding for ARS and agreed with Obama on the closing of the 10 facilities.

The Senate provided just less than $1.1 billion in funding for the ARS in its version of the bill but made no mention of the closing of the 10 facilities, leaving that in the hands of ARS.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in which ARS is located, currently is being funded by the second of two continuing resolutions, which provide budgets at the same level for the fiscal year 2011-2012 that started on Oct. 1 as for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

The first continuing resolution expired on Oct. 4, and the second will expire on Nov. 18–this Friday.

Given that neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bill specify that the Campbell Center or any of the others identified for closing by Obama remain open, the issue now seems to be when the doors to the Campbell Center will be closed and what happens to the land.

Sandy Miller Hays, director of the information office of the ARS in Beltsville, Md., told me on Tuesday of last week that the future of the Campbell Center remains undecided until Congress has acted, but she did say that at 2 p.m. on Dec. 5 ARS will open buy-out and early retirement options to eligible employees.

All “displaced employees” will be offered other employment options should the Center close, she said.

The 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill passed by the House specified that the properties to be closed could be turned over to a land-grant college or university located in the same state if the land-grant college or university agreed to accept and use the property for agricultural and natural resources research for a minimum of 25 years.

The University of Georgia, a land-grant institution, has expressed an interest in the property that makes up the Campbell Center. The cattle on the property already are owned by the University of Georgia and managed collaboratively with the Campbell Center.

The University’s Horticulture Farm on Hog Mountain Road abuts the Campbell Center.

Hays from ARS said if the House language is not retained in the final bill and the Campbell Center is closed, the property would be turned over to the General Services Administration for disposal.

The University of Georgia still might be able to obtain the land, but it would be a more complex process than if the House language were approved by the Conference Committee and then both houses of Congress.

Georgia’s First District Representative Jack Kingston chaired the Subcommittee on Agriculture of the House Committee on Appropriations. The Subcommittee drafted the House bill.

Kingston, a Republican from Savannah, grew up in Athens and attended the University of Georgia.

Kingston also is a member of the Conference Committee working to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Alison Thigpen, a member of Kingston’s staff working with him on the bill, told me in a telephone conversation on Thursday that it is her hope the House provision on conveyance of the land will be incorporated into the bill to be presented to the full House this week.

Thigpen said she expects the Conference Committee to make its report tomorrow or Tuesday.

The Agriculture Appropriations Bill passed the Republican-controlled House in June by a vote of 217-203, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans voting against it. Paul Broun, representing Oconee County in Congress, was one of the Republicans who voted against the bill.

Rep. Brown had called for even deeper cuts in agriculture funding.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has been a strong supporter of the Campbell Center in the past.

Ben Mosely, a staff member for Chambliss, told me in a telephone conversation on Monday of last week that Sen. Chambliss wants the land to be kept in agricultural research if the Campbell Center is closed and “favors the House language” regarding transfer of the property.

Chambliss and Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, voted against the Senate version of the bill. The Senate is controlled by the Democrats.

The Senate version was approved 69-30, with 16 Republicans joining the Democrats in passing the bill. All those in opposition were Republicans.

The Conference Committee was created to reconcile different versions of appropriations bills that fund Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Transportation/Housing Urban Development.

Normally, Congress approves funding of the federal government in a single, omnibus bill covering 12 categories.

Because of the divisions in Congress and between Congress and the President, funding for the three areas of Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Transportation/Housing Urban Development is being lumped into what is termed a “minibus” bill for action.

The Campbell Center was started on Jan. 1, 1937, to conduct research and develop procedures to deal with soil erosion, which plagued the area, state and region.

The Center’s 1,107 acres are divided into four tracts and make up a little less than 1 percent of the total acreage in the county.

Just fewer than 610 of those acres are in the middle of the most densely settled part of the county east of Butler’s Crossing and north of Watkinsville. The land is prime for commercial development when the economy turns around.

And 245 of those acres are across Hog Mountain Road from the Civic Center, which is the part of the county undergoing the most rapid change before the current economic downturn hit.

Only 252 of the acres are in the southern, largely agricultural part of the county.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis has said he wants the property to remain as green space.

When I spoke with him by telephone on Tuesday of last week, he said he had not been kept informed about the future of the Campbell Center.

He said the small amount of information he has gotten has come through the University of Georgia.

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