By DOUG GRAVES
CINCINNATI, Ohio — Because of the drying up of county funding, the Hamilton County extension program ceased to exist at the start of this year. The program, one of the oldest in Ohio, operates on $354,000 annually ($300,000 that pays for all or part of nine employees’ salaries and benefits, plus $54,000 for office costs).
But by the end of 2012 the office reported it was $68,000 short, meaning an end to the group’s nutrition program for the poor, its 400 volunteers and thousands of volunteer hours spent on public gardening projects and its work to prevent tree-killing pests from invading the county.
Also ending will be its 4-H youth development, which includes neighborhood clubs and after-school programs involving 3,500 youth annually.
This is the first extension program in Ohio, and one of just a few extension programs in the country, to close. Carroll County extension, in the easternmost part of Ohio, closed for a short time last year but then found funding to open on a small scale.
Hamilton County commissioners, who had to cover a $14.4 million shortfall in the 2013 budget, say they can’t afford the program anymore. Nor can the Metropolitan Sewer District, which in recent years had been paying for extension out of its budget.
This all spells an end to the 4-H Fair. The last two years the 4-H Fair has been held at Stricker’s Grove in adjacent Butler County, after splitting off from the then-troubled Hamilton County Fair.
“Any funding for the Hamilton County extension will not be able to come from the county’s general fund because the county has made cuts and layoffs to departments and operations,” said County Commissioner Chris Monzel.
Those in the commissioner’s office have looked for a rent-free home for the group and even sought funding, but have come up short in both efforts.
“Today we still do a lot of agriculture education, and it’s a good system for nutritional education,” says Suzanne Steel, spokeswoman for Ohio State University extension, which runs the county extension offices.
According to Steel, federal dollars are given to extension programs to teach food stamp recipients how to eat healthy and stretch their budget. State and local government money, she said, pays for other programming such as 4-H, horticulture and environmental.
Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said every state is facing budget cuts that in some way affects extension programs. Some states, he added, have taken innovative approaches to keep extension alive, whether it’s by consolidating into regional teams of educators or partnering with neighboring states.
“Extension has played an important role in the lives of Americans for 100 years, and the current spate of retirements, budget cuts and loss of positions are taking their toll,” Ramaswamy said. “As a nation we’re reaching the tipping point where this unbelievable institution called extension is in jeopardy.”
Hamilton County extension Director Tonya Horvath said the program has a long tradition of providing research-based education to county residents. “We’re not just doing hobby-fun projects, we’re teaching life-long skills,” she explained.