By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – About half the people new Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell laid off earlier this month because of a budget shortfall will not be called back to work.

Spell said Wednesday about 70 people would lose their jobs as he attempts to downsize and make more efficient the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

“We are looking at a lot of regulations to see if they are essential,” Spell said during a luncheon sponsored by the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Press Association. “Our primary goal should be to put Mississippi agriculture in a position to take advantage of the opportunities out there.”

Before Spell can focus on that goal, he has had to deal with the department’s financial shortfall. Spell, a Democrat from Richland who took office in January, laid off about 140 employees at the beginning of the month.

At the time, Spell said the layoffs were necessary because the department had spent two-thirds of its $8.2 million budget during the first half of the year. The budget years runs from July 1 until June 30.

Spell is trying to downsize the department from the point it had grown to under Jim Buck Ross, who stepped down after serving seven terms as commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

Spell said a report, developed by a transition team, will recommend the elimination of the 70 positions. The report will be complete on May 15. The employees whose positions are not eliminated will be called back to work in July.

The department currently has about 330 employees.

Spell said elimination of the positions will save the department about $1.4 million per year.

The positions can be eliminated because the department is performing services that are no longer needed and because two or three people are performing jobs that could be done by a single ag employee.

As an example, Spell cited inspections at lawn and garden stores of items like plants, pesticides and seeds. Currently, he said, three people might be going to the stores on different days to do the inspections when one person could be performing the tasks.

This would eliminate personnel and also save travel expenses, he said. The department spent $250,000 on the maintenance of its vehicles last year.

Spell hopes to convert some of the savings into new vehicles and equipment. He said much of the equipment the department uses is outdated. He also said new equipment is needed to check the octane level of gasoline pumps on-site instead of having to transport samples to Mississippi State for inspection.

The inspections of various consumer items, ranging from meat to gasoline, are one of the department’s main functions.

“A lot of the equipment money has been going to the (ag) museum,” Spell said.

The Jim Buck Ross Agricultural and Forestry Museum in Jackson was the former commissioner’s pet project. Spell said much of the reason for the shortfall in the current budget year can be attributed to funds that were funneled to the museum from other areas of the department.

Spell said the museum is of “Smithsonian quality” and costs about $800,000 annually to operate, which is about $400,000 more than it makes. He doubted that it could be made self-sufficient.

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