Friday, July 29, 2011

4-H threatened by county cuts

Budget savings could kill agriculture program


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

4-H member Madison Virgil herds her 249-pound pig, Dinner, through the auction ring at least year’s Blaine County Fair. Funding for the 4-H program coordinator may be cut for 2012, which 4-H volunteers say could threaten the fair, the auction and the program as a whole. Photo by Willy Cook

County budget reductions could deal a harsh blow to the University of Idaho Blaine County Extension Office by eliminating the 4-H program coordinator position, a move volunteers and university employees say may eventually kill the program.

"You couldn't have a 4-H program, not really," said Missy Cummins, the 4-H extension educator at the University of Idaho Bannock County Extension. "A 4-H program could probably sustain itself for a couple of years without a coordinator, but long-term, it would die."

The county will consider a 2012 budget plan on Tuesday that eliminates new positions and leaves vacant county positions open though the new fiscal year, including in the University of Idaho Blaine County Extension office.

Extension staff are paid by the county, though they are university employees and subject to university regulations. Cutting this position would save the county just under $45,000.

County Commissioner Tom Bowman said the original intent was to combine the job descriptions for two extension office vacancies, an administrative assistant and the 4-H coordinator.

"What seems to be a logical conclusion is that there should be one person to do both, because there is not a lot of 4-H in the winter," he said.

The extension office filled one of the positions two weeks ago when it hired an administrative assistant.

Pat Momont, University of Idaho Extension Southern District director, said that while the administrative assistant could probably take on some 4-H responsibilities, university regulations keep it far from simple.

"We can't, two weeks into the job, say, 'We didn't hire you for this, we need you to do that,'" he said. "[Human Resources] would tell us, 'No, you have to rewrite the job description, let the person go and tell them to reapply with a general applicant pool.'"

Volunteers have picked up the slack while the university tried to fill the vacancy. But Christine Leslie, 4-H group leader and a teacher at Bellevue Elementary School, said community involvement can't make up for having a good coordinator.

"The program might survive, but it probably won't thrive," she said. "There is community involvement, but you need someone to orchestrate it."

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Volunteers organized this year's Blaine County Fair and 4-H market auction, but Leslie said they struggle without guidance.

"When you have 10 different people who are trying to organize something, things may not work out the way they are supposed to," she said.

Volunteers have filled in the gaps in the extension office since January, but County Commissioner Larry Schoen said this solution is only short-term.

"They're really at the limits of their ability to keep up," Schoen said.

County commissioners stated last week that they support 4-H, but not all of them are convinced it's the county's job to make the program survives. The university subsidizes some 4-H coordinators across the state, including in Lincoln County, but Blaine County doesn't receive any help.

"Although [4-H] is valuable, I'm not sure that's a function of county government," Bowman said in a workshop last week. "Why don't we fund Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts? They have basically the same mission."

Schoen argued in an interview Thursday that the county funds youth organizations such as Youth Adult Konnections, and that 4-H is just as vital to the mid- and south valley communities.

The future of the 4-H coordinator, and the program itself, will remain in flux until the final budget is set in September. Bowman said the county has not made a final decision, but has several options.

"Maybe we just don't need an office assistant, or maybe we'll decide to keep both positions," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Leslie said she wanted the county to fund the position and help the 4-H program, but that she wanted the county commissioners to want to fund it even more.

"I want my county to be part of this, and I want the county to be proud of these kids," she said. "People always want to say, 'That's not my responsibility, that's not my job.' But this program is so vital."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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