By DOUG GRAVES
VAN WERT, Ohio — In the current financial climate, several Ohio county extension programs are facing elimination.
Last month the program in Hamilton County closed, coming up $68,000 short of the funds needed to maintain salaries and putting an end to 4-H development programs in the state’s oldest county.
But some counties in Ohio that are facing a similar fate are not throwing in the towel just yet. Many are looking at all options before closing the doors.
Carroll County extension in eastern Ohio closed for a short period in 2012, but then found funding to operate on a small scale.
Those in Morrow County overcame the challenges to maintain their extension programs through a local tax levy. Eddie Lou Meimer, a 4-H volunteer and newly elected Ohio Farm Bureau Northwest Women’s Trustee, was part of an effort to save extension there.
“We were working off a bare-bones budget to begin with, when the commissioners told us we’d have to do a levy because they didn’t have the funds,” she said.
Meimer, along with a group of 25-30 volunteers, stepped up and formed a committee to focus on developing an approach to getting a levy passed to support extension programs in Morrow County.
The levy would raise taxes on a $100,000 appraisal by $17. She said they explained this to people by comparing it to the cost of a large pizza, to make it easier to comprehend.
Van Wert County faced similar circumstances, forming a committee to campaign for a tax levy. Cheri Oechsle, marketing director at Niswonger Performing Arts Center and a 4-H supporter, served as the chair of the publicity committee.
“We were looking for big farmers, little farmers, non-ag people that were involved in 4-H and just anybody that might be interested in helping extension,” she said. “The idea was to let people know how a total extension program would benefit them – not just farmers, but all parts of the community. It’s important to find key people and utilize their strengths.”
The committee used testimonials from those impacted by extension programs to create videos and ads, and Oechsle used her experience as a marketing director to more effectively target advertising.
“A lot of what we did was knowing the demographics and having one-on-one conversations about extension with people,” she said. “It was a lot of beating on doors and getting our information in people’s faces.”
The levies in Morrow and Van Wert counties both passed and will face renewal campaigns in a few years. Other counties also have pursued other options such as raising private funds.
These two counties faced losing not only local but also state and federal funding. By working together these communities were able to show the value of extension programs, and use that to successfully maintain local funding.
If a county loses all county funding, it loses all state and federal dollars as well because funds are distributed on a matching basis, but state funds have seen cuts, too. In the last biennium budget discussions at the Statehouse, Ohio State University extension faced major cuts to state funding.
In preparation for the potential cuts, extension planned a restructuring that included moving to more field specialists in a regional system. When extension didn’t see the level of budget cuts projected, the majority of planned changes did not have to be made, but some insights from counties emerged in the process.
“We heard loud and clearly that counties value, first and foremost, having a 4-H youth development educator as a major priority,” said Beverly Kelbaugh, extension South Central Region director.
“We made sure that we gave counties the ability to have that 4-H youth development educator. We have either a 4-H educator or 4-H program coordinator in every county in the state at this point.”
Kelbaugh said if a county can’t meet the local 40 percent cost on an educator, they are asked to look to a neighboring county to try to share resources – and she said several counties are doing this in some capacity.
At some extension offices across the state other budget-cutting measures are in place. The Ottawa County commissioners had to make some budget cuts within different county agencies, and extension was one that received some of these cuts. Because of this, the office has had to reduce staff hours and one staff position; in addition, it is now closed on Fridays.