Budget crunch hits Ohio State University Extension

SALEM, Ohio — No one is safe from hard-hitting money woes, and this week, another victim came forward: Ohio State University Extension.

State budget cuts will eliminate roughly $3.6 million of the state Extension purse now through June 2011 and have forced a massive restructuring and workforce reduction in the state Extension system.

“OSU Extension must reduce its workforce and expenses to align with declining state and local revenues,” said Keith Smith, director of OSU Extension and associate vice president of agricultural administration at Ohio State.

Impact

The most recent cuts represent a 24 percent decrease in available funds for Extension between fiscal years 2008 and 2011.

The FY2009 budget stands at $23.5 million; by 2011, it will be slashed to $19.9 million.

The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Wooster will see immediate 5 percent cuts, too, and a loss of 14 percent of its budget between now and 2011.

State funding is the backbone of Extension’s total annual budget, accounting for 40 percent of the agency’s spending.

A new system

The reorganization will be based on a strategic plan OSU Extension completed in 2008, but will be implemented with fewer people than originally intended.

For instance, the restructuring plan released March 3 says the state budget can support 180 educator full-time equivalents in the field. Late last week, 21 employees were cut; state staffing still stands at an excess of 218 FTEs.

More cuts will be made to bring employment in line with budget allowances, according to Suzanne Steel, an Extension spokesperson.

The agency spends 82 percent of its annual budget on salaries and benefits.

Nine areas

Under the new organization, some employees will be relocated to other areas of the state to meet the needs of nine multi-county education and research areas. Each area will have unique staffing allowances based on the needs of the region, Steel said.

No county offices are expected to be closed completely, but some program and office personnel cuts should be expected, Steel said.

Steel cited the university’s privacy policy and could not discuss what staffers may be moved or what personnel were already cut.

“In our strategic plan, we looked at what needs were most important to Ohioans, and evaluated who we were serving. Those needs will be reflected in the programming offered,” Steel said.

The university’s plan has also said counties whose commissioners provide more funding will receive more programming opportunities.

“We set out to reorganize our work in a way that ensures we can continue providing high-quality services throughout Ohio, and be positioned to succeed when the economy improves,” Keith Smith said.

Local voice

Mike Hogan, an OSU Extension educator based in Carroll County, served on the task force that advised the state on how to best deal with the restructuring.

“The devil is in the details,” he said of the new arrangement. As president of the state’s Extension educators’ association, “I hear lots of concerns, what can we do. But what can we do? We were dealt that hand with the budget and we have to make it work,” he said.

Hogan, who has served as the ag educator for Carroll, Harrison and Jefferson counties for the last 10 years, said his own work situation is a testament that sharing educators across counties can and does work, and may even be beneficial.

“Sometimes you’ll have to drive farther, but you’ll have more broadly available programs sometimes, too,” he said. “We’re proof you can do this fairly well.”

Hogan called the situation “the perfect storm of budget shortfalls.”

“Never in my 24 years have I seen federal, state and local [government] all in such bad shape all at the same time,” he said.

On campus, too

Campus budgets have also been reduced, including those allocated to Extension specialists in each academic department in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

All departments in the college will be submitting a plan by April 1 to outline how best to deal with budget cuts in their respective departments, according to Steel.

Tenured faculty are the only ones ‘safe’ during the budget upheaval, she said; administrative and faculty appointments, including those positions currently vacant, may be eliminated or go unfilled.

More cuts?

The agriculture college’s administrative cabinet is currently in sessions with legislators to discuss their budget and urge them to rethink further cuts, Suzanne Steel said.

Keith Smith said more cuts would significantly hurt Extension’s abilities to create jobs and help communities in economic development. s

“We hope state leaders will recognize our critical economic impact and protect us from additional cuts as they finalize the next biennial budget,” Smith said.

Economic driver

Extension is key to economic development and job creation throughout the state, according to Keith Smith.

As noted in a 2005 Battelle study, OSU Extension plays a critical economic role, applying the latest research to Ohio’s most important industry, the AgBiosciences. According to the study, every 1 percent increase in agricultural production as a result of Extension programming brings $149 million worth of output to the state, and creates 2,712 jobs.

Extension itself helps create more than 1,900 jobs, $64 million in income, and $4.8 million in state taxes annually.

“We maximize food production and safety and stretch precious health care dollars efficiently through special prevention efforts, and we protect and improve the environment in literally every county,” Smith said.

The state’s Extension service is also charged with running a successful 4-H program serving more than 320,000 young people statewide.

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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