The agenda for the Sept. 4 meeting of the Oneida County labor relations and employee services committee included two items pertaining to the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. One was a proposal presented by Steve Nelson, the UWEX's area director for Oneida, Vilas and Forest and Florence counties, outlining a potential move by the Oneida County UWEX from the basement of the airport terminal in Rhinelander to Nicolet College. The other agenda item pertained to UWEX agent contracts with the county.
A handout from the Oneida County UWEX provides highlights for advantages of such a move, one being the college is in the process of facilities and space planning.
"So the timing of this proposal is excellent," the handout reads.
The date of the handout is Aug. 30, 2019, and it was originally submitted to Oneida County board chairman and LRES committee member Dave Hintz.
Hintz said he and others at the county level had recently been made aware of the possibility of a move by UWEX to Nicolet College.
He said after his discussions with Nelson, personnel at Nicolet and others "they promised to get us a proposal."
"We have not really had time to analyze it yet," Hintz added.
The cost to lease space at Nicolet College would be roughly $18,000 per year, compared to $40,000 per year currently paid to the airport by the county.
That's in addition to an annual county contribution to the airport of a little more than $197,000, the same amount paid to the airport by the city of Rhinelander.
"Should the county agree with this proposal," the handout reads, "Extension will start implementing a plan for relocation this fall."
UWEX would pay for relocation expenses and installation of furniture and equipment and also negotiate and pay for the lease for the rest of 2019 "in anticipation of the County working on a three year lease with Nicolet commencing in January of 2020."
Nelson said one of the reasons UWEX was looking at Nicolet was due to changes he said have taken place at the college over the past few years.
"There's online classes, employers are hiring students after one or two terms," he said. "They leave and then come back down the road a few years ... students are getting their education over a longer period of time. What that's done is it's freed up quite a bit of space at the college. So, they're going through this space allocation reorganization."
Hintz said Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond had some questions about mileage rates and other items as they relate to contracts the UWEX has with the county.
Desmond said he believes the two agenda items - the UWEX relocation proposal and UWEX agent contract renewals - are "all intertwined."
"You know, we're required to provide office space for UW Extension," he said. "If we're going to move forward with something like Nicolet, I think, you know, some language regarding that needs to be placed into the next year's contract or the next two years (of) contracts about how we're going to proceed forward ... looking at the budgets, we've had some pretty high mileage rates or mileage reimbursements which could all be legitimate but I think it's all things we need to look at as we go forward because of budget constraints."
Another issue Desmond outlined was the fact that Oneida County shares UWEX personnel with other counties.
"I think, for the one agent, we're paying four-tenths of an employee," he said. "I just want to make sure we're getting the balance of what we should be getting, a correct determination of how much time we're getting from these agents. I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm just saying it's something we should look at given what's going on with the budget season."
According to Oneida County finance director Darcy Smith, the proposed 2020 UWEX contract is $90,800.
For 2019, it was $89,144.
"I think what we should do as a committee or a county is take a comprehensive look at UW Extension," Hintz said. "Including the relocation, the staffing, the mileage. Put it all together so we understand what we're getting into or what we want to get into ... we look at it as one complete package."
He said he recently visited with Rhinelander airport director Matthew Leitner about possible alternative uses for the space currently occupied by UWEX staff.
"There might be some but I think it's gonna be difficult to find ... I don't think somebody's gonna come in and rent the space for $40,000, which would be ideal," Hintz said. "But I don't think that's gonna happen."
The issue of the future use of that space should be part of the comprehensive look at the UWEX, Hintz said, adding that it is on "our funding committee's list to review."
"The team that looked at that (UWEX) looked at cutting the UW Extension," Hintz said.
Committee member Billy Fried agreed.
"Of all the programs, it was the highest rated, or maybe lowest rated, going back to the (Carlson on-site) efficiency study and then the study by funding opportunities," he said. "That's yet to be decided. Our other agenda item is the (UWEX) contract. I think it kind of starts here with the county deciding if you want to renew the contract."
If the contract were to be renewed, there would be a lot of questions to be answered, Fried said.
"Costs to be analyzed and stuff to go to the budget hearing," he said. "I would think it would be best at this point, because there is a lead time notice, and we've had issues in the past, that we just non-renew the contract and these discussions can go on."
Fried said he'd rather non- renew the contract now because if it was ultimately decided by the county board to cut the UWEX from the budget, the non-renewal notice will already be in place.
"If we decide to change course and add it into the (2020) budget, I'm sure they'd be open to us doing the contract at that time," he said. "Kind of like what we've done being proactive with the city."
Fried's statement was a reference to how Oneida County has worked out contract negotiations with the city of Rhinelander over time.
"I think we should do a similar thing with the UW Extension," he said. "There's a lot of questions about this relocation I don't think you want to do today and it's very preliminary."
Committee member Scott Holewinski said he agreed with Fried's position.
"Until we know what's gonna happen, we shouldn't renew the contract," he said. "Because then, we're tied into it."
Hintz also said he agreed, but felt what Fried was saying was the UWEX contract should be put on hold until there's a better understanding of many issues.
"In a way, that's not renewing it," he said. "We're not gonna say 'We're not gonna renew it.' We're just not authorizing it at this point until we have a complete picture of what's going on."
Hintz pointed out there was another committee involved - the conservation and UWEX committee, chaired by Oneida County supervisor Bob Mott.
"I think they should work through these issues and come up with a proposal," he said.
As far as the UWEX agent contracts, Fried maintained he'd like to issue a notice of non-renewal now.
"I mean, Steve's here," he said. "He understands where we're at."
"I just have a different perspective than you," Nelson said.
"And that's for you guys to bring forward and answer any questions we have and we'll see if we even have dollars," Fried said. "But the county's looking at non-mandated programs to keep the lights on."
He then made a motion to give UWEX a non-renewal notice for its agent contracts with Oneida County. Holewinski seconded the motion.
Cushing said by approving the non-renewal now, it wouldn't prohibit UWEX from "coming back with all this information and a proposed new budget."
The vote for the non-renewal was unanimous.
The county's conservation and UWEX committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at email@example.com.
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