Extensions mull merger

Register City Editor

Register/Bob Johnson
Jim Lindquist explained the advantages of counties merging into Extension Service districts Tuesday night.

CHANUTE — Dr. Jim Lindquist said here Tuesday evening merging Allen and Neosho counties Extension services would in-crease effectiveness and efficiency of programming for the two counties, provide savings through economy of scale and possibly increase 4-H numbers and activities.
Lindquist, assistant director for Field Operations at Kansas State University, said the two Extension agents in each of the counties were stretched too thin; “They have to do everything.”
Within one district, they could focus on specific areas and provide better leadership. That has been the outcome in nine districts elsewhere in Kansas, where two to four counties have been combined into single units, he said. Often, the consolidations have permitted expansion of staff to give more direction and encouragement in 4-H, Lindquist said.
Legislators froze local government budgets in 1987, which challenged Kansas State in its efforts to deliver high quality educational programs through the Extension Service in agriculture, domestic pursuits and for youth through 4-H, Lindquist said. Economic conditions further made it difficult to keep up with attrition among Extension agents in the state’s 105 counties.
That led to the 1991 Kansas Extension District Law.
Under the law, districts are similar to school districts. A board, with taxing authority, is made up of four members from each county, first appointed and then elected at-large within the county with two members selected each two years to four-year terms.
Initially, tax authority was limited to 2.5 mills or $75,000 in tax dollars, whichever was larger, but those limits since have been removed. Lindquist noted that tax levies seldom have exceeded 2.5 mills and in four of eight districts in operation more than a year, levies have declined from what they were at the start. The largest is 2.981 mills, the smallest 1.175 mills. The levy for the Extension Service in Allen County’s 2010 budget is 1.027 mills; Neosho County’s is .610 of a mill.
Extension Service budgets are a mix of one-third local money, one-third state money, 16-17 percent federal money and revenue generated by fees and programs, Linquist said.
Most multi-county districts are in the northern tier of the state. The only one in the southern part of the state was formed in 2008 and is Rolling Prairie, made up of Elk and Chautauqua counties.
Formation of a district comes about through interest expressed within a county’s Extension Service, including that of members of its advisory council, and requires county commissioners to sign on through an enabling resolution. Advisory councils remain a component within a district and are in equal numbers from each participating county.
Allen County Commissioner Gary McIntosh attended the meeting and said he was intrigued by the proposal, but did not immediately commit support. “It’s something we’ll have to talk about,” McIntosh said, meaning he and commissioners Dick Works and Rob Francis.
Lindquist pointed out formation of a district isn’t ironclad. Commissioners have legal latitude to remove a county from a district.

WHILE A DISTRICT lays the foundation for cooperation and more comprehensive and specialized service, it does not result in closing of county offices.
In existing districts county offices have remained open and there’s every reason to think that would be the case if Allen and Neosho counties joined together. Lindquist said sharing personnel often occurred and agents had more opportunities to narrow and intensify their interests. For example, with two agricultural agents in a district, one might specialize on crops, the other livestock.
Also, staff members may assume responsibilities for all of the district, which can lead to fewer being required and savings that can provide more money for programming and activities, Lindquist said.
County fairs are a staple of the Extension service and would remain a county function, he said.
Advisory councils in Allen and Neosho counties will discuss what they learned at the meeting and eventually make a recommendation to county commissioners, who would have final say through an enabling resolution.