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County may cut 4-H coordinator funding

Facing the reality of a loss in state aid funding and a continued decrease in fee revenue sources, Washington County is planning to make up for projected budget shortfalls by cutting an additional $3.2 million from its 2009 budget.

Last week, county commissioners met with department heads and administration officials to develop a plan to make cuts -- a majority of which will come from reducing county staff.

More than 20 full-time staff positions will be cut from the 2009 budget. Nineteen of those will be vacant positions in various county departments that were left open due to a hiring freeze. Two of those positions are likely to be layoffs of current staff.

One relatively small portion of the budget reduction which stirred up some controversy last week includes the county's likely termination of its $131,000 services contract with the University of Minnesota's Extension Service to fund two 4-H coordinator positions.

For many years, the county has funded the positions which are managed out

of the U of M Extension Service office.

Several community members involved with 4-H in Washington County attended the Tuesday, Feb. 24 county board meeting to express their dissatisfaction with county's decision to cut funding for the positions.

At their Feb. 17 workshop, county board members generally supported the recommendation to terminate the $131,000 services contract, which was brought up for discussion by staff members.

The official move to terminate the contract with the U of M Extension Services is expected to come to the county board meeting next month, said Lowell Johnson, director for the county's public health and environment department.

If approved, the contract would run until July 1, which officials said would allow 4-H coordinators to continue to prepare for the 2009 Washington County Fair activities.

If the county board votes to terminate the contract with the U of M Extension Service, it would be the first county in the state to cut all of its previous funding to extensive service programs, extension service officials said.

Late last year, the county board decided to cut funding for the U of M Extension Service's master gardeners program.

Duing the last year, some counties in the state have reduced their level of funding for extension service activities, but none have eliminated funding completely, said Aimee Viniard-Weideman, communications director for U of M Extension Service.

"Our staff has been actively involved with (Washington) county staff the whole way through, reporting on our services and their benefit to the county," Viniard-Weideman said. "As of last Tuesday we were told to begin preparing for elimination of contract to fund those services."

'Cut would drastically impact 4-H'

Currently, more than 500 youth are active in 4-H clubs throughout Washington County. More than 200 youth participate in site-based 4-H programs, such as workshops or the county fair.

The county-funded 4-H coordinator positions aid 4-H volunteers in recruiting new members, maintain membership and organize events.

Since learning of the likely funding cut, U of M Extension Service officials have been circulating letters to local members of Washington County 4-H groups.

The letters cite repercussions -- in the opinion of extension service officials -- that the cuts will have to the clubs: loss of recruitment and support of volunteers and new members, loss of 4-H presence at the Washington County Fair and loss of participation at the state fair.

"While Minnesota 4-H and the University of Minnesota Extension will continue to provide 4-H education, research and volunteer training at a regional level," wrote Pat Morreim, regional director for U of M Extension Service, "the vast majority of the programs, services and events valued by Washington County 4-H youth and families will no longer be available."

Although extension service officials have said the county's elimination of funding for the two coordinator positions would be a big blow to 4-H presence in Washington County, commissioners feel otherwise.

While explaining the news about the budget adjustment to members of the county's extension service advisory committee last week, commissioner Gary Kriesel said he faced some in attendance who believed that the county should address its budget shortfall by raising taxes to save the 4-H coordinator positions.

"I think the message we're trying to relay is that (extension service funding for the 4-H positions) were in our budget," Kriesel said, "and if they can get the state to fund some of state's unfunded mandates, that we'd possibly have the discretion to put them back in there. But I'm not going to fund (extension services) at the expense of laying off people that are focused on providing core services to our county."

An ongoing discussion

Washington County Board chair Myra Peterson said the discussion of whether to continue to renew the county's contract with U of M extension services has been ongoing for at least a decade.

"We've talked several times about how there are a whole host of other programs for youth out there that the county does not subsidize," Peterson said. "Look at Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and youth hockey programs. Those activities are totally subsidized by parents."

Peterson said that the 4-H program in Washington County has been beneficial to youth and can continue to make an impact without the county's funding for two coordinator positions.

"This decision has no bearing on the quality of the services 4-H provides to the community," Peterson said. "But I believe that if I have a choice of taking care of or monitoring the safety of our children and vulnerable adults or funding 4-H or extension, I know we have to make our core services a priority."

County administrator Jim Schug said that, over time, funding for 4-H activities has become less and less of a priority for county government as unfunded state mandates continue to creep into the county budget.

Schug said the county is preparing for further cuts to the 2009 budget that will likely carry over to 2010 because of the latest projections that the state's $4.8 billion dollar budget deficit may actually be growing.

"It's very possible we'll have to make additional budget adjustments," Schug said. "All of the services that the county provides are valuable, but this current economic climate is causing us to have to reduce some of those services.