LISBON, Ohio – It may seem like the Aesop fable about the little shepherd boy crying “Wolf!,” but Julie Herron, director of the Columbiana County office of OSU Extension, says it’s not.
“The wolf is at the door,” Herron said, describing the office’s financial outlook for 2006.
Since 1990, the local extension office has been telling clients and 4-H families that it needs more stable funding, but last month the Columbiana County commissioners told Herron the office will receive nothing from the general fund appropriations in 2006.
“It’s not a budget cut this time,” Herron said, “it’s no funding.”
‘No’ to sales tax. At the polls last month, Columbiana County voters defeated a 0.5 percent sales tax, which generated between $3 and $4 million, or roughly 21 percent of the county’s $18.85 million operating revenue.
Two commissioners have stated publicly they will not impose the tax, and the earliest the tax could go back on the ballot is May.
“There’s nothing there right now for them [extension office],” said County Commissioner Jim Hoppel, adding that funding priority has to go to offices with statutory responsibilities. The extension office is not a mandated agency.
“This is not a decision we want to make,” Hoppel said, “but I don’t see any options at this present time.”
Familiar situation. The local extension office has been wrestling with slim operating budgets for nearly 20 years, including one year when the county appropriation totaled only $10,000.
In 2005, the office received $160,000 from the general fund.
The office, an outreach arm of Ohio State University, is funded by a combination of state, federal and county dollars. But to get the state and federal dollars, the county must also provide funding, so the zeroed-out appropriation by the commissioners will also effectively cancel funding from other sources as well.
In the mid-1990s, the university “carried” the office through a year of financial cutbacks, but in the ensuing years, the county office had to repay the university $60,000 for that loan.
And in 1999 and 2000, supporters of the countywide 4-H youth development program coordinated a fundraising drive that raised $38,477 earmarked for 4-H programming through the extension office.
4-H will take hit. 4-H is the most visible program of the extension office. Last year approximately 850 youth from 500 families enrolled in the 4-H program. The local club programs are led by more than 250 adult volunteers.
The office also provides educational programming in agriculture and natural resources, community development, and family and consumer sciences.
Currently the staff includes Herron, the 4-H educator and county director; Ernie Oelker, ag educator; a part-time family and consumer science educator who is shared with the local office of Job and Family Services; a part-time program assistant; and two secretaries.
The university could reassign Oelker to another ag position elsewhere in the state, but Herron does not have the same faculty status as Oelker and her future is uncertain, she said. She has already begun the process of terminating the support staff and the one-year contract of the part-time program assistant will not be renewed as of Dec. 31.
Worst-case scenario. If the commissioners opt not to impose the sales tax and it goes down to defeat on the May ballot, the extension office would likely close, said Lou Fourman, southeast Ohio regional director for OSU Extension.
“We’re out of business,” Fourman said.
If the tax is passed and commissioners indicate some willingness to even minimally fund the office, the university might consider another loan to get the county office through 2006, Fourman said.
4-H donations. The only glimmer of light, Fourman and Herron said, are the funds donated to maintain the 4-H program back in 2000. A balance of approximately $16,000 remains in that development fund, which could keep one person in the office on a part-time basis until that money runs out.
“The money’s been sitting there since 2000 for a rainy day,” Herron said, “but all it can be used for is 4-H.”
The county also instituted a $10 membership fee for all 4-H members in 2006, which could raise an additional $5,000 to $6,000, Herron said.
Those two funding sources will not be enough to maintain the office for long, she added.
“There’s not going to be enough to do business as usual.”
The county extension advisory committee was scheduled to meet Nov. 30 to review options.
The commissioners have planned public finance meetings at 5 p.m. Dec. 7 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 14, both in the commissioners’ meeting room in the Columbiana County Courthouse.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at email@example.com.)
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Source: OSU Extension, Columbiana County