The Oneida County administration committee trimmed the proposed budget of the UW-Extension only slightly last week, asking the Extension to cut $1,756 from its 2020 request and at least delaying a move to Nicolet College that a majority of supervisors viewed as an additional cost next year.
It was a slight setback for the Extension, which wants to move to Nicolet from its airport location, but it avoided a more significant cut proposed by supervisor Billy Fried, who moved to reduce the program's current funding by nearly half, from $197,000 to $100,000.
During the budget hearing, UW-Extension staff reviewed its programs for the committee, and they were joined by a number of citizens who wholeheartedly offered their support for Extension services. No member of the public spoke in favor of cutting the Extension's budget.
The move to Nicolet was the most contested specific bone of contention. The county currently plays $40,000 for the Extension's space at the airport. The proposed Nicolet rent is $18,000 a year.
The UW Extension itself would pick up $9,000 of that Nicolet rent for the first year. The UW Extension staff calculated the county would save anywhere between $17,600 and $31,000 in 2020, depending on how quickly the airport could find a renter to replace the Extension, and $22,000 a year after that.
But most supervisors saw it differently. The likelihood of the airport finding a renter quickly to replace that revenue was small, in that view, and so the county would have to continue its $40,000 commitment, plus pay its portion of Nicolet rent, which would in that view increase the UW Extension's budget for next year by $9,000 - a cost increase rather than a savings.
"We're assuming the county will continue to pay $40,000 until some revenue would offset it," Fried said. "We're assuming no one would be there. That's not directly attributed to your budget, but in our overall picture we're still going to have to come up with that $40,000."
Both supervisors Dave Hintz and Ted Cushing agreed the county must remain committed to that revenue level until replacement monies could be found because the airport is a critical component of Oneida County's economy.
At the end of the day, Fried's motion to cut the county levy to the Extension from $197,000 to $100,000 died for the lack of a second, and supervisor Bob Mott's subsequent motion to fully fund the UW Extension budget as presented was defeated 3-2, with Hintz joining Mott in supporting the motion, and supervisor Robb Jensen joining Cushing and Fried in voting it down.
Cushing then moved to have the Extension stay put at the airport, until offsetting revenues could be found for the airport, and to require the agency to trim another $1,756 from its budget so that it would be a zero percent increase request, as the county has required of other departments.
During the committee debate, Mott offered his full support for the UW Extension, citing the public's support as well.
"I think from the letters of support that we have received and from the presentation today, this whole UW Extension question is a question of quality of life in the county," Mott said. "Everyone is touched by the programs."
Mott said the total cost of the services for the broad range of people the Extension serves was less than the county was spending for one highway department vehicle.
"Earlier today we heard about spending $264,000 for a truck for the highway department," he said. "I certainly think that the money we are asking for Extension today, with the number of people who are touched in the county by these programs, should be worth part of the truck. Trucks are important, but people are very important, and I think that's what Extension does in our county."
Mott said he had served on the UW Extension committee for eight years and knew first-hand the job the Extension's educators do.
"I know the quality of the jobs they perform, and I know the Wisconsin Idea of taking the university knowledge and sharing that in different ways for the county," he said. "I think it would be shortsighted to cut this at all. I fully support the Extension."
Fried took the opposing view, acknowledging that he has been a vocal advocate of cutting the Extension's funding and cutting the program from the county.
"There's no denying that there are some true benefits brought to people through their programs," Fried said. "We have some quality people over there. But, for me, it's not about judging whether the quality of the program is better than OKing a purchase of a highway truck."
The reality was, highways are a mandated county program, Fried said, and it was his responsibility to provide that truck.
"Our highways, our sheriff, our social services - these are things that we are mandated to provide," he said. "Tourism, the fair, UW Extension - these are things that are non-mandated programs. So when I have $10 in my pocket, and I can go and spend that $10 and keep everything going, it's great. But once my mandated programs cost me $10 and I don't have the extra $3 for the non-mandated programs, what do I do?"
Fried said he had thoroughly researched his position.
"I've been on the county board six or eight years now, and in that time there have been three groups that have done strong studies for the day that we run out of dollars," he said. "There was an efficiency study that ranked every program in the county. They not only did it once, they did it twice."
Fried said he was not part of either study, but both of them ranked the UW Extension and its programs at the bottom of the list in county priorities.
"Then this last year we knew we were facing a budget deficit," he said. "We're behind market on our pay to staff in a market where it's hard enough to find people to even apply. So a funding opportunities committee was started made of up of staff and supervisors, and one of the recommendations from this third study was that we could relieve $197,000 of our tax levy if we didn't continue to fund UW Extension."
That finding from a funding opportunities study team confirmed that the UW Extension was the lowest ranked program in the county's efficiency study, with all programs ranked 146 and below in importance. While further study was needed, the recommendation was to eliminate the Extension and then bring back certain specifically needed individual programs.
With the move to Nicolet included, Fried told the administration committee this week, the county tax contribution would top $200,000.
"That's the challenge," he said." If you can tell me where to get the $200,000 plus, without telling highway they can't plow a route or fill potholes, then yes. ... I'd love to see us fund 4-H and teen court and keep some of the programs that are in place. If it's affordable, I support trying to keep some of their programs."
Finding the middle ground
Jensen, who has also served on the county's UW Extension committee, said he hoped to be a voice of compromise.
"One of my goals here is to see if I can't be the middle child and try to find where there can be some compromise," he said. "I don't believe we should eliminate UW Extension, and there has been some talk about that."
Nonetheless, Jensen said, all departments had been asked to bring forward a zero percent increase in their budgets, and the Extension should do the same, even though he said he saw the Extension's move to Nicolet as a good thing.
"Sometimes in the public sector it takes time, and I think that opportunity is there," he said. "But having said that, it still means we need to come up with $9,000 to make that move for year one. So if I take the $9,000 for that, and the $1,756, we're looking at $10,756."
The state of Wisconsin created some of the issues, Jensen said.
"They created this when they made significant cuts to UW Extension, which caused a significant reorganization to UW Extension, which caused us to reduce FTEs because we didn't have the money in moving the zero percent forward," he said. "We could say we are at 2.4 FTEs (full-time equivalent employees), build your budget on 2.1. I don't know if you can reduce some of the FTEs for the educators and possibly by going to Nicolet we could reduce some cost with our own support staff. I'm trying to see if we can find a happy medium, but right now I think we are about almost $11,000 short from balancing at a zero percent increase."
Area UW Extension director Steve Nelson reiterated his belief that the move represented a cost savings to the county, but committee chairman Dave Hintz also reiterated that it would be tough to replace the revenue at the airport.
"They will look for alternative uses at the airport, but it's a difficult task to replace that revenue," he said.
Mott said it was somewhat unfair to blame the Extension for the $40,000 commitment to the airport.
"When you have Extension, one of the agreements with the state is that you provide a place to work and pay the rent for it," he said. "If we had been in the courthouse, for example, there would have been no rent and you wouldn't have to make it up and so we could go to Nicolet or wherever and it would be done."
Moving to a space that cost $22,000 less per year and viewing that as a cost increase didn't make sense, Mott said.
"It's still difficult for me to understand that we are paying rent of $40,000 at the airport, and we would be paying rent of $18,000 at Nicolet, and we're mixing the two things and saying we have to come up with that additional money because the airport needs that money," he said. "It is a savings to go to Nicolet."
Hintz reiterated that the $40,000 commitment was a reality, and Cushing said he viewed the new proposal as a rent increase to $58,000 - the $40,000 commitment to the airport and the Nicolet rent of $18,000 a year added on top of it.
"It only occurred because the county at some point said we are going to pay $40,000 for Extension rent," he said.
The ongoing budget process had already eliminated an overall county budget deficit for the year, Mott continued, even with the full Extension budget included. That also included a 2% cost-of-living raise and a portion of the recommended Carlson Dettmann pay raise, he added.
"It's not like we have to find a lot of money," he said. "We are now $100,000 to the good with the Extension budget in here. So we are not, at this point anyhow, scrapping to find new monies. We're just trying to find efficiencies. I continue to say that the budget is reasonable. I think it should continue."
Budget not a done deal
But Fried cautioned that the budget process was not finished, and the committee would revisit some preliminary decisions, such as pulling $250,000 from the general fund to fund operations.
"My assumption is that we will review what we've done over the last three days," he said. "We're going to look back at taking some of that general fund money, stretching some revenues in departments, relooking at our health policy. There's a bunch of six-figure items that need to be clarified. I don't think it's as simple as saying we've got the money now."
Positions in other departments are being lost, Fried said, and people losing their jobs.
"I feel the money is needed elsewhere in the county," he said. "I am for maintaining it at a different level than what is being asked."
After Fried's own motion to reduce the levy to $100,000 failed to garner a second, Mott proposed fully funding the Extension's request, but Fried pressed on with his view.
"This is a program that has been continually reviewed," he said. "It hurts me that we have asked other people in this county to make cuts or maintain, and I feel like we're disrespecting that. Again, there's a lot of value to what you've been doing, but there's a lot of value if these dollars go elsewhere in the county. Until we can have an avenue of raising our funding to the cost it is to have it, we're just chipping away at our core programs."
But Mott challenged that viewpoint, saying the county was not subjecting much larger departments to the same level of scrutiny as the Extension was receiving.
"We look at two multimillion dollar budgets, the sheriff's department and the highway department, and if we put as much diligence in examining those and asking for cuts as we do here, it would probably be more than $100,000 that we are ahead," he said. "It boggles my mind in looking at this and the services that are provided that this is on the chopping block for 'x' amount of dollars while those programs continue - and I'm not saying they are not important, they are - but they are huge budgets and they are so complicated that it's difficult to go through them and pull out what's not needed."
The UW Extension's budget was more straightforward, Mott said, for educators.
"So I would say if we can support the sheriff's department essentially as is and the highway essentially as is, and pull money from the general fund to do the highway department, I think we can afford to support this," he said.
Still, his motion failed 3-2 and Cushing made his motion to keep the Extension where it is and to require them to pare their budget by $1,756.
His motion prevailed.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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