Plan would bring changes to Extension offices in Walworth, Rock counties

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Catherine W. Idzerda | January 11, 2016

ELKHORN—A Walworth County official is worried that a proposed plan to regionalize UW Cooperative Extension offices would lead to reduced services and the possible destruction of the system.

Under the plan, Rock, Walworth and Jefferson counties would become one region. Each office would retain a local presence, but the number of state-funded agents would drop to an equivalent of two for each county. In the tri-county region that would include Rock and Walworth, it would mean a drop from 11- state-funded agents to six agents.

Counties could continue to fund positions on their own, state officials say.

In 2015, the Legislature announced $125 million cuts to the UW System. Included in that amount were cuts to the Extension system of $3.6 million or about 8 percent from each office.

On Wednesday, representatives from the UW Extension administrative offices met with the Walworth County Board Agriculture and Extension Committee to answer questions about proposed cuts to the local offices.

It's a meeting Extension officials have been having with Extension offices and supervisors all over the state. In December, they met with staff at Rock County's office.

At Wednesday's meeting, however, county committee members were given a copy of the Extension's planned statewide reorganization.

The plan, dated Dec. 21, would significantly change the way Extension operates.

Walworth County Board Chairwoman Nancy Russell told UW officials that she was worried that without county-specific staff focused on county-specific issues, relationships would erode and programs would fall to the wayside, leading to “the destruction of Extension.”


In 1911, the University of Wisconsin sent its first county agricultural agent to Oneida County.

Under an agreement between the university and county, the agent's salary was paid half by the state and half by the county.

More than 100 years later, all of Wisconsin's counties and many tribal units have their own Extension offices, each with several specialists in areas such as agriculture, livestock, family life and youth development. Agents are paid 60 percent by the state and 40 percent by the counties.

Every Extension office is different. The amount of staff and the type of specialists differ from county to county. In general, counties pay 40 percent of professionals' salaries, and the state pays 60 percent. Some counties pay more—up to 100 percent—depending on their needs.

For example, Rock County's office has:

-- Two administrative support staff paid 100 percent by the county.

-- The equivalent of four full-time agents including a family living educator, an ag agent, a 4-H youth agent and a horticulture agent. Their salaries are 60 percent state, 40 percent county.

-- A full-time 4-H Youth development advisor. Her salary is 40 percent state, 60 percent county.

-- Five full-time staff in the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program. Four of the salaries are funded with federal money. One is paid with 95 percent federal funds and 5 percent county.

The program also has a part-time position that is 85 percent of full-time paid 20 percent by county and 65 percent by federal funds.

The Walworth County office has:

-- Two administrative support staff paid 100 percent by the county.

-- The equivalent of five full-time agents including two ag agents, a family living agent, a 4-H agent and a horticulture educator.

Three of their salaries are 60 percent state, 40 percent county.

The remaining two--one of the agriculture agents and the horticulture educator--are 100 percent county funded.

Walworth County usually has only four full-time agents. This year, however, the countyis hosting Farm Progress Days, a multi-day event that takes a lot of planning.

The fifth position will not be funded after this year.

The county board made a decision to fully fund the horticulture agent position because of the services she provides to the county.

--A full-time youth development coordinator, paid 100 percent by the county.

-- Two nutrition education people, paid 100 percent by the federal government.

-- A volunteer coordinator position, paid 100 percent by the county.

Each Extension office has a unique focus. Some horticultural agents focus a significant amount of energy on the state Master Gardener volunteer program. Others might focus more on small farms or market garden work.

Some ag agents might specialize more in crops and soils. Others might specialize in dairy or livestock.

Under a tentative plan, the state would be divided up into multi-county areas. Rock, Jefferson and Walworth counties would be a unit. Green, Iowa, Lafayette and Grant counties would be grouped together.

Counties with larger populations--such as Dane, Waukesha and Milwaukee--would stand alone, while smaller counties might be part of five-county groups, according to the report.

When dividing the state, planners considered convenience, the locations of current offices, historical alliances and ongoing joint programming, according to the report.

Each block of counties would have an area leader, local educators, area educators, operations coordinator and administrative staff.

Counties would be asked to pay for the equivalent of two educators at the current level: 60 percent county funding and 40 percent state funding.

The plan has not been finalized.

“Let me assure you that this is a process,” said Cathy Sandeen, chancellor for the UW Extension and UW two-year campuses. “This isn't the final answer, the final decision.”


At the meeting Wednesday in Walworth County, Richard Klemme, dean of the cooperative extension division, explained the problem this way: A dairy farmer has a successful farm. He expands, adding on to his barn as his herd grows. He continues to add on. At some point, he runs into challenges and realizes he has to operate differently. He might have to invest in a modern milking parlor or reconfigure his operations in some other way.

That's what is happening to Extension, Klemme said, and it needs to find a new way to do business because of the budget cuts.

Supervisor Dan Kilkenny acknowledged Klemme's metaphor, but then added, “Yes, but we're the cows.”

His point?

If Extension is the farmer, then local officials and residents are the cows.
Sure, a farmer could mix dairy cows with steers and heifers, but it might not work as well--and in a dairy operation, it's the cows that matter most.

Committee members expressed serious concerns about the changes including:

-- Paying for services they don't want. Kilkenny asked what would happen if a tri-county region included economic development/natural resources agents. Both Rock and Walworth already cut such positions. But what if another county wanted to keep such a position?

-- The decline in the quality of “high touch” programs. For example, Walworth County's master gardener program and the adults who work with 4-H clubs volunteered 16,768 hours in 2014. The county's youth agents and its horticulture agent spend a significant amount of time developing the relationships that make those programs work.
How would a youth agent run 4-H programs across county lines?

-- Coordinating with other counties.
“Right not, the 133 (Extension) contract is between us and the state--between two parties,” Kilkenny said.

How will that work between three, four or five counties? Who would be in charge of coordinating services?

Sandeen said many of the details would be worked out through the planning process.

Her office is asking for  feedback throughout January. At the end of January, the chancellor will appoint a steering committee and project manager and go through six months of planning. Extension staff, county partners, clients and volunteers "will be fully engaged throughout the process."

Changes would begin later this year. Most personnel changes would happened at the end of this year and early in 2017.

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