November 13, 2008

County Extension Council Discusses Possible Closure of Memphis Office

The Scotland County Extension Council met November 6 to review options following the defeat of the sales tax initiative in the November 4 election.

The Extension Council received the state minimum funding of $5,000 from the county in 2008. The county budget for extension fell from $23,761 in 2006, to $15,000 in 2007 to $5,000 this year. The council used its own assets and fundraising in order to keep the office open this year with the hope that the voters would approve the ¼ cent sales tax increase to restore its funding to 2006 levels.

The tax initiative, if passed, would have added approximately $100,000 to the county budget which, Commissioners Mike Stephenson and Paul Campbell pledged, would have allowed for a return to 2006 level funding for local office. It would have cost each resident in the county an estimated $13 a year.

Extension Council President Jeff Behrens anticipates the office will again receive the $5,000 state minimum in 2009.

That level is inadequate to keep the office in Memphis open.

Extension oversees many local programs, most notably the county’s four 4-H programs. The closure of the local office would mean a transfer oversight of the local 4-H clubs to another extension office, likely Schuyler County. Youth Programming Specialist Pat Wiggins currently serves both counties. Her office would be moved full time to Schuyler County, with Scotland County reimbursing Schuyler County for her expenses.

County Program Director Judy Howard would be reassigned to another county. The other programs that Extension provides, including Dairy Days and the Master Gardner program would end. Residents would have to travel to neighboring counties for extension services and programs.

Schuyler County voters approved a similar sales tax increase in August to the one that Scotland County voters rejected, which provided funding to secure the funding for the Schuyler County Extension office. As long as the Scotland County Commission budgets the state minimum of $5,000, Scotland County can maintain its 4-H programs, but without an office in the county.

If the Memphis office closes, Scotland County would be one of only three counties in Missouri to not have a local extension office.

4-H and the Extension Council hosted a candidate forum in July and sponsored four listening posts last month that featured the County Commissioners and County Clerk Betty Lodewegen in order to educate the public about the importance of passing the tax initiative. An additional post was held at the Sandhill and Dancing Rabbit communities. Council members Dave McRobert and Kristy Eggleston-Wood said that confusion as to where the new revenue would go caused some to not support it. The sales tax increased revenue would have been earmarked for Law Enforcement, but would have allowed the commissioners to free $100,000 to the general revenue fund from the law enforcement’s budget for other county needs, especially Extension.

The Extension Council has $11,575 in its reserves. It voted to keep the Scotland County office open through January, in order to wait for the results of the county’s 2009 budget. It also discussed various fund raising options for additional revenue.

Behrens said that even if the county increased the Extension budget to $10,000 or even the 2007 level of $15,000, keeping the office open would require substantial additional fundraising, between $10,000 and $15,000. The university pays Howard and Wiggins salaries, but the county and Extension Council area responsible for maintaining the local office, including the secretary’s salary along with office expenses.

“The University of Missouri has a level of support that it expects the county to provide in order to continue programming here,” Behrens said. “Having an office open full time with adequate secretarial support for extension specialists is critical. The county Extension Council has to have a budget near $24,000 annually to do that.”

The Memphis office cut its hours in 2007 down to 20 hours per week, with the office closed on Friday. The decision to close the office belongs to the local Extension Council, but the placement of specialists is up to the University of Missouri. Behrens said the University has been generous in keeping specialists Howard and Wiggins in Scotland County because it does not wish to see the office close. He added that he didn’t know how much longer the University would allow Scotland County to keep specialist with a part-time office.

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