4-H not immune to potential cuts

Published 11:14 am Monday, March 16, 2009

The cry, “Omigod …… not 4-H!”, could be heard in Mower County, when the list of potential budget cuts was announced.

Last year, 490 children and teens participated in 4-H programming and activities. In addition, there were 65 Cloverbuds or children too young for 4-H activities who have their own level of participation and competition.

Children and teens in grades kindergarten through the first year past high school graduation are eligible to participate overall.

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There are 14 4-H clubs in Mower County.

In addition to the children and teens involved in 4-H, there are 150 adult volunteers.

Jayne Hager Dee is the regional director of the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

One of the counties within her jurisdiction is Mower. One of the Mower County Extension programs Dee oversees is 4-H.

According to Dee, the 4-H “experience” should not go ignored by Mower County’s budget gurus.

“The Extension Service program is such a large part of community life in Mower County,” Dee said.

Extension programming also includes the popular Master Gardener program, but it is the 4-leafed clover that is a symbol of one of Extension’s strongest connection to families and like everything else, it’s on the table for consideration.

One of the potential options is to eliminate 4-H. All of it.

Another is to charge each 4-Her $25 a year to, it’s devotees say, “make the best better,” the organization’s motto, and to “learn by doing,” its slogan.

4-Hers do those things by pledging their head to clearer thinking, their heart to greater loyalty, their hands to larger service, their health to better living.

And they make those pledges for their 4-H clubs, their communities, their country and the world.

Eliminate that or otherwise make it difficult for 4-Hers to do those things by imposing a fee could be disastrous to the organization’s goals.

But thinking about doing that is necessary to avert another disaster: drowning in red ink.

Mower County faces a 2009 County Program Aid reduction in the amount of $504,331 and another CPA reduction in 2010 of $715,938.

Financial analysts say other CPA reductions in 2011 and beyond will follow at comparable if not higher levels.

The $4.86-billion state budget deficit figure is a “low ball” figure, according to analysts.

The Minnesota Legislature must balance the state budget before the end of the session a the $4.86-billion or a higher level.

Local government units, cities and counties, already are experiencing back pain as in balancing the state budget deficit on the backs of local units of government.

Is it any wonder, “Everything is on the table” — as county coordinator Craig Oscarson described it — for consideration and previously sacrosanct items, such as 4-H, are under the magnifying glass?

Emotions within the Mower County Extension Committee are running high at the prospect of the untouchable becoming touched.

That despite county staff’s attempts to alleviate over-reacting.

On charging 4-Hers an annual fee, the official Mower County line is: “This is not the position of local or regional 4-H, but may be a minimal impact to keep more service budget cuts from impacting a quality program.”

On eliminating 4-H all together, the official Mower County line is: “This is not a preferred option as Mower County is a n agricultural county and has found this to be a tremendous youth program. This is only included as a discussion point as, at least, one county — Washington County is considering this.”

Six years ago, the University of Minnesota Extension Service went through a transition due to state budget reductions.

The result was a new-looking UM Extension Service.

Many counties — Mower was one of them — lost their own County Extension director and became part of a merged Extension unit headquarters at Albert Lea.

What Mower County’s commissioners chose to do at the time was to save 4-H. The county board agreed to fund the 4-H program director’s position and 4-H life went on as usual.

Now, the 4-H program is at another crossroads: To be or not to be.

Announcing the potential budget cuts Wednesday night, March 4, was only the first step in a process. To be sure, no cuts have been made.

Regional Extension Service director Dee sounded pragmatic as she discussed the situation.

“The commissioners are going to have some really, really tough decisions to make,” Dee said of the potential budget cuts.

It was an understatement.

Unfunded state mandates, shrinking federal revenue streams and a stagnant economy have left Mower County operating frugally for several years.

On top of those external forces is the proposed $36-million Mower County jail and justice center project.

Despite mounting evidence that it is less expensive to board out prisoners, Mower County’s commissioners are moving ahead to build a new jail and courthouse.

With one hand, they are waving a financial knife to cut spending drastically. With the other, they are preparing to break ground for a new jail and justice center.

“Can they do both?” inquiring taxpayers — Mower County employees among them — want to know.

Regional Extension Service director Dee said the county’s role in making Extension work in Mower County is important. “There are three partners involved here: The federal government, the state and local government. If we were to lose one, that could impact what all three were trying to do together.”

But Dee said she remains “very optimistic” the Extension Service programming can survive. “The Extension programming is such a large part of community life in Mower County,” she said.

And a large part of that is the “4-H experience.”

“Life skills, research-backed programs, training for adult leaders” are only some of the assets developed by 4-H.

Dee said she believes the high regard for 4-H in Mower County cannot be ignored.

Dee fears “Draconian cuts” to county budgets, but prefers at this point to avoid hand-wringing and repeating reports of gloom and doom to come.

“We are ready to work with the county administration and the county board on this problem,” Dee said.