Farm Horizons, Feb. 2002

Extension workforce to be cut by 20%

By Lynda Jensen

Change and uncertainty is in the air for the University of Minnesota Extension Office.

The office will be making long-awaited cuts of close to 20 percent of its workforce, effective early February, said Lee Raeth, district director of the central district office of the extension service for the University of Minnesota.

The cuts are no surprise to extension employees, since changes have been proposed for several years.

However, details about imminent program cuts and potential layoffs have been slow in coming, said Joe Neubauer, an educator at the McLeod County Extension Office.

The streamlining of staff will probably mean cutting 30 to 60 educators statewide, Neubauer said.

Although layoffs are likely, the service hopes to use early retirement and other options first before it moves to layoffs, Raeth said.

The service will attempt to encourage early retirement for the time being, Raeth said. Exactly how many positions will be left will be announced soon, he said.

Across the board cuts are planned

The cuts are not related to the state budget crises, or financial cuts handed to the University of Minnesota last year, Raeth said.

Rather, a plan for the extension service has been in the works for several years, he said.

In fact, talk about changing the extension service for the year 2000 surfaced as early as 1997, said Wright County Commissioner Dick Mattson.

Mattson serves on both the 4-H extension committee of Wright County, and the four-county cluster committee, and has done so for nine years.

The cluster of Wright, Sherburne, Benton, and Stearns is well known for being active, Mattson said.

Even if the state had a surplus, these changes would still be implemented, commented Mary Anderson, an educator for Wright County.

Reasons that are driving the change include financial problems, and the service trying to respond to the way people are asking for information, Raeth said.

The service is currently operating at a deficit, Neubauer said.

The legislature asked the extension service in May to examine its structure and come up with a plan, Neubauer said.

The new extension service will feature cuts across the board, with equal cuts reflected in the workforce statewide, Raeth said.

Rural Minnesota is not a target for more cuts than the other areas, he said.

This statement is met with strong skepticism by both Mattson and Rep. Bob Ness, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Finance committee.

Too many cuts are planned for rural Minnesota, where the service is the most popular, Ness said. "They will be doing less, with less."

"It's easy to cut, but what are you cutting, and for what purpose?" Mattson asked.

What the new service will be like?

Each county will continue to have its own office, which will be staffed by at least one program assistant, Raeth said.

"We are not closing any county offices," Raeth said.

Educators, however, will be spread out across counties and regionalized, Raeth said. This will allow the service to continue offering resources without depleting it financially, he said.

These changes are worrisome for Anderson, who wondered how much of the infrastructure of people and resources would be lost, she said. Depending on the cuts, it would be hard to recapture that structure, she said.

"We don't know where they are projecting to make cuts," she said.

The dairy industry, for example, is a huge revenue engine for the state, and may suffer if the extension offices cuts certain services, she said.

Another example is 4-H, Anderson said, which depends heavily on volunteers, Anderson said.

If local volunteers are distanced from educators who are working regionally, the extension service may lose them, she said.

"My fear is that we have a great base of parent volunteers," she said. "We could jeopardize that."

One out of every four children participate in 4-H, Ness said.

Direct cuts are not planned for 4-H, since it is a strong program, although it will be affected by the regionalization of educators, he said.

"There will not be direct budget cuts to 4-H as such, Raeth said.

State and county fairs will also be affected as little as possible, Raeth said.

Under the new plan, all extension programs will be under three arenas:

1. Community development and vitality,

2. Land, food and environment, and,

3. Youth development and family living.

This information represents a huge bedrock of research-based information from the University of Minnesota to the public, Anderson said.

The nice thing about the extension service is that it has nothing to sell, such as a seed dealer might have to a farmer, she said.

"It is an integral part of our heritage," Ness said.

The changes are spurred by metro area legislators, who pack voting power, and care little about the extension service, Mattson said.

Cloud of uncertainty

Local extension educators admit being in the dark about what the future holds.

For some time, educators have been bracing for change, but exactly what kind of change ­ and whether they still have a job ­ is unknown, and has been that way for a long time, Neubauer said.

A core group of people have been meeting to form the details of what will happen, although communication with extension staff has been few and far between, Neubauer said.

"I'd be much healthier, if I knew (what was going to happen)," Neubauer said.

"We don't know what it means for us," Anderson said.

Mattson indicated the service was floundering from a lack of direction and continuity, which is aggravated by a turnover in staff, he said.

"They are not giving good direction to educators," Mattson said.

Where the money comes from

Half of the budget for the extension service is funded by the state, to the tune of $27.5 million, Ness said.

The balance is made up by federal money, grants, and counties. The latter contributes more than quarter of its budget, he said.

There has been some indication that the state hopes counties will shoulder more of the financial burden, Ness said.

Raeth denied this, saying that the university was not looking in that direction. However, it is hoping that grants and collaborative projects will yield more fruit, Raeth said.

Money that comes from state, county, or federal, is getting harder to find, Raeth said.

As it is, counties contribute office space, secretarial staff, travel, and phone expenses toward the extension office which houses university employees, Ness said.

Counties pick up 40 percent of the tab from the payroll of extension service employees, Raeth said. Fringe benefits are paid for by the university, he added.

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