Counties face Extension decisions
They will pick, choose programs
By Janet Kubat Willette
Many questions remain for counties after last week's announcement that the Extension Service is moving to regional offices.
What will happen to the Master Gardener program? How is the 4-H program going to function in each county? Will county offices remain open?
Extension officials say the new model allows counties to chose the services they need and also whether or not to fund an office and pay for support staff. Counties now split educator salaries with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, cover most office supply costs and pay the salaries of support staff.
Norm Gallagher of Worthington is chairman of the Nobles County board of commissioners. He said the board has been talking about Extension for more than a year, since the last round of changes was announced.
Nobles County is home to educators who work in other counties, Gallagher said, and the county hasn't received any reimbursement for the time the educators spend in other counties. He said commissioners will want more information before deciding whether or not to apply to become the site of a regional office.
No vote has been taken, but the consensus among the board is "we don't really want to be a part of the Extension program," he said.
Commissioners want to continue to buy 4-H and youth programming, but he said other information provided by educators is available free on the Internet.
In Stearns County, board chairman Leigh Lenzmeier said Extension has proven its worth by focusing on production agriculture.
"The best thing Extension can do is focus in on their traditional role," said Lenzmeier, the son of an Extension agent.
In the state's No. 1 dairy county, Extension has coordinated a dairy advisory committee and worked on efforts to strengthen the region's dairy industry.
Lenzmeier questions whether 4-H needs to be tied to Extension. Other youth programs, such as the Boy Scouts and Boys and Girls Club, don't have a government connection, he said.
Gallagher wasn't surprised by last week's announcement, saying dean and director Charles Casey has been hinting at a regional concept in his speeches, but he was surprised it is happening so quickly: Regional offices are expected to open in January.
Lenzmeier said Extension educators in Benton, Stearns, Sherburne and Wright counties have been working together for about five years to share expertise and best serve residents. Stearns County would be interested in being a regional office for Extension, he said.
Communication with Extension has been good, Lenzmeier said, adding that it's tough for county commissioners to focus on Extension with all the other budget decisions that must be made.
There has been little ongoing communication between Extension and the county board in Nobles County, Gallagher said, instead the county receives information in major announcements at the same time everyone else finds out. He doesn't fault Extension staff, saying they probably didn't have any answers.
Neil Broadwater, county Extension director for Winona and Houston counties, said Extension field staff didn't know.
"We did not know when we went to the meeting yesterday what was going to be unveiled," Broadwater said Thursday. "It was kept pretty confidential until the announcement was made yesterday and that's fair. That way everybody gets the word at the same time."
Rep. Howard Swenson, R-Nicollet, learned about the change while reading his mail Thursday night. Extension hasn't been discussed by legislators this year, Swenson said, though it was the subject of hearings when last year's reorganization was announced.
Legislators probably weren't aware changes were planned, he said, at least he wasn't.
"A lot of uncertainty remains," Broadwater said. "We do now have a framework, but a tremendous amount of work needs to be done in the next seven months."