North Dakota grapples with cuts to extension service
CENTER, N.D. — The State Board of Agricultural Research and Education for North Dakota has to figure out how to fund the North Dakota State University Extension Service in light of a more than $4 million decrease in funding from the Legislature. One proposal would change the balance of funding between the state and counties, including a big difference for six of the state's least populated counties.
If SBARE goes ahead with the proposal, the counties of Golden Valley, Logan, Oliver, Sheridan, Slope and Steele could be priced out of having their own county extension offices.
The North Dakota Legislature during its 2017 session made cuts almost across the board, including a 14.5 percent cut to the North Dakota State University Extension Service. SBARE is tasked with figuring out how to best deliver services within the funding amount, explains SBARE chair Keith Peltier.
While Peltier stresses that no decision has been made on how to adjust extension funding, he says "everything is on the table."
"How can we efficiently allocate those resources to continue to deliver services?" is what the board has to determine, he says.
SBARE was created by the Legislature in 1997 for budgeting and policy making associated with the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and in 1999 became responsible for the North Dakota State University Extension Service.
Under current agreements, counties pay 50 percent of agents' salaries, as well as costs for support staff and office supplies and management. The state picks up 50 percent of agent salaries and all fringe benefits, including insurance.
For 46 North Dakota counties, a new proposal would have the state pay 60 percent of agent salaries and fringe benefits, and the county would pay 40 percent of the salaries and fringe benefits as well as everything else required to run the office.
But Golden Valley, Logan, Oliver, Sheridan, Slope and Steele counties would have to pick up 60 percent of agent salaries and fringe benefits and all other costs, with the state picking up 40 percent of agent salaries and benefits, explains Oliver County Extension Agent Rick Schmidt. The seventh North Dakota county with a population smaller than 2,000, Billings County, already has merged its extension office with neighboring Stark County. Eddy and Foster counties, both of which are above the 2,000 population threshold, also share an agent.
For Oliver County, the proposal would mean an additional nearly $23,000 per year to maintain an extension office, compared to an additional $5,600 if it were treated like other counties, Schmidt says.
"It's an unfair plan," he says. "In the small counties, we probably have as much of an impact on the same number of people as (agents in) a big county might. I think extension is more important in smaller counties, because they really don't have other resources to go to."
Peltier says he doesn't know if the proposal is fair, but SBARE has to make some changes to account for the difference in funding. Already, some positions within extension have been eliminated and others have been frozen. Those changes, as well as the funding change proposed, still don't cover the shortfall, he says.
Dave Berger of Oliver County worries what the loss of an extension office could mean for a community like his. Towns there have lost businesses as people drive to not-so-far-away Bismarck and Mandan. But they've still got their own fair and other attractions, which rely heavily on the extension office, as do farmers and other community members.
The county also has a vibrant 4-H program, which has 70 members. With 210 students, not including homeschooled students, in the county, that's a strong representation.
"A lot of people aren't going to drive to Morton County or Mercer County to be in 4-H," Berger says.
Peltier says the testimony from the affected counties about the importance of their extension offices has been vital to the board's understanding. There is a chance, he says, the testimony will mean a different proposal will emerge — perhaps one that will enact more across-the-board cuts or that will incorporate other cost-saving ideas.
"We get ideas from that testimony on how we can deliver our product better, which is really what we're after," he says. "We're still listening."
Meetings about extension funding proposals
The next SBARE listening session is scheduled for Jan. 12 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Northern Great Plains Research Lab in Mandan, N.D. To set up a 10-15 minute time slot to share input, contact Lorie Herbel at 701-231-7656 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To provide written testimony, send a letter to SBARE, NDSU Dept. 7520, PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050 or send an email to email@example.com. Remarks should include the writer's agricultural research and/or extension needs and potential solutions.
Supporters of the Oliver County Extension Office plan to hold a community meeting about the future of the office at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Center Civic Center.