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Friday, March 6th, 2009

Economy woes hit OSU Extension

Announcement today outlines cuts in manpower, services

By Shelley Grieshop

Kendra Pease, 14, of the Philothea Hustlers 4-H Club, gives her crossbred market. . .

A lack of state funding for Ohio State University Extension offices throughout the state will mean cuts to staff and programs, possibly even 4-H. Some agencies are shutting down.
In Mercer and Auglaize counties, extension office officials still don't know how their offices will be affected. But financial support of county commissioners will help ease the strain - at least for now.
An announcement by OSU Extension officials today detailed a plan of survival for the 88 offices across the state. Included in the strategy is a reduction in unnamed educators from 240 to 180. Some of those positions will be terminated immediately in order for the agency to "remain fiscally solvent," the plan states.
Another part of the plan is to stretch educators' geographical areas and assign them "across county lines" to multi-county regions deemed Extension Education and Research Areas. The idea is to share their specialized knowledge across a broader region and help with the reduction in force, officials said.
The overall goal is to have an office open in each county staffed by a minimum of one full-time educator and one full-time staff support personnel, according to the restructuring plan.
The announcement was just another blow to the OSU Extension branch in Allen County in Lima, which is in the process of closing its doors after county commissioners offered no funds to help them operate this year. Thanks to private donations, the agency will maintain a "bare-bones" 4-H program but nothing else, Director Nancy Recker told The Daily Standard.
"It's been a bad year," she said in a telephone interview, as she and workers packed boxes and cleaned out desks on Thursday.
Recker said she and co-workers were in a "grieving" state and very disappointed in their county commissioners who opted not to give them their annual support of $267,000 this year. The county is experiencing deep financial problems.
Recker has tenure with the university and will be moved to a yet unnamed position. However, four of her employees will receive pink slips next week, she said.
"I don't think the public realizes what we all do. The 4-H program is very important to the community but it's not the only thing we offer," she said.
The OSU Extension agency offers numerous services to farmers including re-certification programs for pesticide spraying with restricted-use chemicals. Other divisions educate the public all year long with programs on nutrition, food safety, financial and family issues and other topics.
Recker said it's difficult to say how much time also is spent fielding phone calls from the public on a variety of issues from insects eating roses to ridding an odor from a new washing machine.
"It's all part of our job," she added.
County extension offices across Ohio receive operating money from several sources. The Mercer and Auglaize county offices operate on approximately 40 percent funding from the state, 30 percent from the county, 20 percent from the federal government and 10 percent from grants and other sources.
Mercer County commissioners opted to maintain that funding this year but have stated their budget does not allow for anything more this year. In Auglaize County, commissioners decreased funding by 5 percent.
Mercer County Commissioner Jerry Laffin said the board wholeheartedly supports the agency, particularly the 4-H program.
"I think the extension program is very important," he said. "It would be wrong not to support it."
The Ohio Revised Code mandates commissioners provide office space to the agency but funding is at the county's discretion, Laffin said.
Todd Mangen, director of the Mercer County office and an extension educator, said his office currently has four full-time and two part-time employees on the payroll. Unlike Recker, he does not have tenure and is uncertain what his duties will be when the smoke clears.
"They haven't told us much yet," he said Thursday. "We really don't know what to expect. We're like everyone else right now who's dealing with state funding cuts."
The OSU Extension plan is not intended to "be static or last forever," it states. Recker, who has served as the Allen County agency director for nearly 20 years, certainly hopes it's not.
"I hope things look better next year and the commissioners decide to put us back in their budget," she said. "This has been the most devastating thing in my entire career."
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