MOUNT VERNON — Troy Cooper, director of the Ohio State University Agricultural Extension Agency in Knox County, had his first taste of sitting in the budget crunch seat Monday when he met with the Knox County Commissioners to discuss funding for 2010. Signs are that it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Although the commissioners were supportive of what Extension does for county farmers and youth, they had little encouraging news regarding funding that is a discretionary part of the county’s budget.
When investment income began to fall short of forecasts due to the recession, Knox County was forced earlier this year to “de-appropriate” money already earmarked for various county departments. The budget for 2010 is even tighter, and has required county departments to continue earlier cuts and, in most cases, make deeper cuts.
Cooper, accompanied by advisory board members Steve Lovejoy and Jim Hughes, said Extension is having a tough time, currently running 2 1/2 educators short. Jeff McCutcheon departed to work for the Morrow County Extension, John Barker went to half time, and LuAnn Duncan took an indefinite leave of absence. Cooper said this has already affected Extension’s operation, and he fears the county’s requested cuts of 11 percent will unravel what has taken years to build.
“We’re not real excited to do that because it would affect what we can do, even trickling down to the fair,” Cooper said.
Commissioner Teresa Bemiller said that although she had great appreciation for what Extension does, she had to point out that the recent budget tightening hasn’t been easy for anyone.
Cooper acknowledged that.
“I don’t want to come across as complaining,” Cooper said. “We just want to maintain this program as much as we can.”
“Speaking as an advisor, I truly appreciate the county’s past funding, which may have been more lucrative than what some counties have received,” Lovejoy said. “But that discretionary spending multiplies its impact when it is spent on agriculture.”
Cooper noted the impact some of Extension’s activities have had on the local economy, including thousands of dollars generated by farmers markets, which Cooper helped organize. He said the extra four weeks the Mount Vernon market ran this year added $15,000 in additional sales to vendors, while the new Danville farmers market generated $8,000 in new sales.
Cooper also took stock of surrounding counties. Coshocton County lost a proposed Extension support levy, Richland County has reduced operations by 75 to 80 percent and Marion County is struggling as well. Only Morrow County, which passed a support levy last year, is bucking the budget crunch trend, Cooper said. He added that cutting county funding could put Extension in jeopardy if further state cuts come in 2010.
“If the state budget goes south again, like it did this year, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” Cooper said.
Lovejoy and Hughes cautioned the commissioners not to overreact to the momentary fluctuation of budget numbers, which could cause jagged up and down spikes instead of smoothly regulated budgets over the next few years.
“If we become less visible, we’ll become less important,” Cooper said.
The commissioners said further discussion will ensue once the final figures for the year are seen. They said that, thus far, it looks like the requested 11 percent cut will still be needed.