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Columbia County needs to set Extension priorities

June 6, 2017 GMT

Columbia County officials will have to decide, and pretty soon, where the county’s programming priorities lie for the soon-to-be-downsized University of Wisconsin-Extension.

And the cost to the county’s taxpayers will, of necessity, factor into that decision.

Karen Nelson, 4-H youth development educator for the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County, told the County Board’s Agriculture Land and Water Conservation and Extension Committee on Monday that Extension officials need to meet with county leaders sometime in July, before county department heads need to present their 2018 budget proposals.

Many of the ramifications of the statewide $3.6 million Extension cut remain up in the air, on the eve of implementation, Nelson said.

But based on what she’s hearing from state Extension officials, she said, individual counties – and not, at this point, the multi-county regions that will be organized for the purpose of overseeing local Extension programming – will soon have to decide what Extension services they want most, and how much they can afford.

As Nelson understands it, each Extension educator’s post will require a county to pay a fee, based on the nature of the position and the amount of time for which the county officials want the person in that position to work.

Nelson said this is, or can be, different from the current practice in which the state generally pays 60 percent of a county’s cost for Extension while the county pays the remaining 40 percent.

Columbia County’s 2017 allocation for Extension came to $280,715. When the budget was adopted in November, about half of that was placed in the contingency fund, due to the uncertainty of how the Extension reorganization would affect Columbia County. The County Board’s Finance Committee in April voted to release the remaining county money from the contingency fund – a decision that the County Board ratified at its April meeting.

The exact amounts that counties would have to pay for each Extension educator position were not specified at Monday’s meeting. But if, for example, a full-time position of an agricultural agent costs a county $60,000, the county officials might decide that the county only needs an ag agent to work half-time, which would lower the county’s cost to $30,000 – or one-fourth time, which would bring the cost down to $15,000.

The initial priority-setting will largely be up to each individual county, without considering, yet, the priorities set by neighboring counties, or the prospects of sharing an educator’s services with one particular county or another.

The ALWC-Extension Committee had not planned to meet in July. However, Nelson said, some decisions need to be made before the end of July – and at least some of the committee members should have a say in those decisions.

When the meeting will take place will depend on the schedule of Assistant Dean Matt Hanson, who will likely participate in the discussion.

The budget-based statewide Extension reorganization is intended to ensure that all 72 counties will have, if they want it, a local Extension office and staff. But some Extension educators are likely to be assigned to work in more than one county.

One of the aspects of the reorganization is the grouping of all but the state’s most populous counties into multi-county groupings, with an area director overseeing the administration of Extension in all the counties in a particular group. Columbia County will be grouped with Sauk and Dodge counties.

Nelson said the area directors are expected to be hired by July 1, and that all the candidates for those posts currently work in Extension, though not necessarily at the county level.

Committee member John A. Stevenson of the town of Arlington said he wondered how the counties in each region would divide the services of various educators.

UW-Extension Columbia County Agricultural Agent George Koepp said there already are counties that share the services of certain Extension educators, and those counties aren’t necessarily in the same region.

But one question that hasn’t been answered, Koepp said, is how counties would handle paying mileage reimbursements for an Extension educator whose office is in one county, but who travels to one or more other counties to work.

County Board Vice Chairwoman Mary Cupery had a more basic question: “So where does all this leave our programming?”

Nelson replied that, at least for now, Columbia County’s Extension programming will continue as it is.

“As long as we can,” she said, “we will keep going along, until we get different directions.”