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Counties want adequate funding for ND Extension Service

MINOT, N.D. — Area counties are sending a message to their legislators that the state needs to fund the Extension Service to adequately maintain county-level services.

County officials with the Elmer Jesme Conference of Counties voted to take that position after hearing from Chris Boerboom, director of the North Dakota State University Extension Service, at a meeting Monday, Jan. 22, in Minot. Represented at Monday's meeting were Ward, McHenry, McLean, Renville, Bottineau, Divide, Pierce and Burke counties.

The Extension Service is receiving $4.1 million less this biennium than in its original 2015-17 budget, a 14 percent cut, Boerboom said. Revenue shortfalls forced cuts last biennium and an even lower budget this biennium.

The Extension Service responded by not replacing departing staff, leaving 20 jobs unfilled.

"There are a number of counties that have vacancies right now," Boerboom said. "The Extension Service doesn't have money to come back into partnership with the counties to fill those positions. I just don't have the budget to do that."

At the direction of the Legislature, the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education started a study a year ago that has produced 30 recommendations for efficiencies in the Extension Service.

Of concern to counties have been proposed changes that would combine smaller county Extension offices, require smaller counties that don't merge to pay more or increase the cost-share of all counties.

The state now pays half the cost of county Extension staff salaries and picks up the cost of fringe benefits. Counties pay for half the staff salaries and for office operations, including support personnel. Boerboom explained that over the years as fringe benefit costs have risen faster than salaries, the state's share of costs has increased from 62 percent to about 65 percent.

The proposal is to pool salaries and fringe benefits and maintain a closer split on costs, holding the state's share to 60 percent. In Ward County, that would increase the county's share for the ag agent, family and consumer science agent and youth development director by $14,353.

Boerboom said the Extension Service does not favor merging county offices. States such as South Dakota and Minnesota have regional rather than county programs.

"I don't think that's best for the farmers and ranchers, town and cities across North Dakota," he said. "The strength of Extension is having agents serve the citizens — farmers ranchers, families and 4-Hers — locally. That's the strongest type of program."

Requiring smaller counties to pay more also hasn't been a popular option. More than 100 letters came to SBARE, saying the board shouldn't abandon small counties, Boerboom said. More than a dozen people testified to SBARE on the value of Extension in their counties. As a result, at a meeting in Mandan Friday, the committee voted against differentiating based on size of the county.

"Any of this discussion about smaller counties having to pay more is off the table," Boerboom said.

What remains on the table is the 60/40 cost split. Boerboom said that proposal would enable the Extension Service to begin filling the vacant county positions. That's only the case if the Legislature spares Extension any more cuts, though, he said.

"We can't take any more cuts," he said.

In addition to cuts at the county level, the Extension Service has made administrative changes.

Four program areas have been reduced to three with the consolidation of Family and Consumer Science and Community Vitality. Ag and natural resources and 4-H make up the other two areas. The number of district directors also was reduced from four to three.