Lincoln County Board Chair Don Friske: Agreement in place to maintain 4-H program

No Extension funding in latest budget proposal; amendments to be considered in October

By Jalen Maki

Tomahawk Leader Editor

MERRILL – Following several weeks of uncertainty, Lincoln County’s 4-H program appears to be on the path to remaining in the county.

Facing a $1.2 million budget deficit for 2023, among the steps proposed by the county’s Finance and Insurance Committee to get back into the black was to eliminate the county’s portion of funding for UW-Extension, which facilitates 4-H and other programs in Lincoln County.

For years, funding the county’s Extension office has been a joint effort, with Extension providing about 55% of the monies (roughly $260,000.00 for 2023) and the county accounting for the remaining 45% (about $208,000.00).

Extension employees have said that without Lincoln County’s portion of funding, the county’s Extension office would be forced to close.

A listening session, organized by Extension and Lincoln County Board Chair Don Friske, was held at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Sept. 14. The session provided the public with an opportunity to voice their concerns about the potential slashing of Extension dollars and how that would affect 4-H and other programs.

Prior to the public comment period during the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, Sept. 20, Friske said he had spoken with UW-Extension, and an agreement had been reached that would maintain the county’s 4-H program.

No information on what the agreement entails was provided during the meeting.

Art Lersch, Area 3 Director at the UW-Extension office in Lincoln County, said on Friday, Sept. 23 that he had not spoken to Friske personally regarding an agreement and was not aware of an agreement having been made in writing.

Assistant Dean and Associate Professor Jason Hausler, who works with the Extension offices in Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Marathon, Portage and Wood counties, said on Friday, Sept. 23 that as of that date, there was no written agreement or contract in place, but Extension was aware of a “verbal agreement on behalf of” Friske to “allocate the funding in the Extension budget for 2023 to keep 4-H going.”

During the last week’s meeting, the board was presented with the first balanced 2023 county budget proposal. No funding was allocated to Extension in the proposal.

Friske noted that the board will consider any amendments to the budget proposal in October.  Yearly budgets are typically approved in November.

The Tomahawk Leader reached out to Friske regarding the aforementioned agreement, but had not received a response as of press time on Monday, Sept. 26.

Public comment period

More than a dozen people spoke over the course of the meeting’s roughly one-hour public comment period, all speaking in favor of funding Extension and/or maintaining the 4-H program.

Lersch said the partnership between Extension and the county has existed for more than 100 years, and that Extension “would like to see that partnership continue for the next 100 years.”

“UW-Extension is committed to continuing our investment in Lincoln County, should Lincoln County choose to continue its investment with us,” Lersch stated.

Lersch said Extension “understand(s) and empathize(s) with the budget challenges facing Lincoln County,” noting that Extension’s own fiscal constraints prevent it from covering the county’s portion of the co-investment.

Allie Libby, a counselor at Merrill High School, spoke about other programs Extension provides and how they may be impacted by a lack of funding.

Libby explained that Extension co-chairs the county’s Healthy Minds Coalition, which is a partnership with the Lincoln County Health Department.

The coalition’s “sole purpose” is to “support the physical and mental health of Lincoln County residents,” Libby said.

“If this cut goes through, it will certainly decrease the effectiveness and the ability to support our residents through programs like youth and adult mental health first aid, creating Lincoln County resource guides that are used in the majority of organizations within our county, decreasing the stigma around accessing mental health services in our community and an integral part of providing our school districts with mental health programming and services,” Libby stated.

Libby also highlighted Extension’s Health and Well-Being, Positive Youth Development and Community Development positions, saying the positions “support systems” and are “the backbone of so many organizations and functionings throughout the county.”

“Without this backbone to our community, Lincoln County might not feel an impact in terms of one obvious cut or program,” Libby stated. “Rather, this cut will permeate for years to come. Systems will not collaborate. Residents will not have resources. Funds will not be brought into the community.”

Libby added that if Extension funding were to be cut, rather than paying for “preventative services in our community that in turn bring more money into our county than the cost of their program,” the county would “be paying for it in the long run with reactive services that cost the county and its residents far more in funds and tax dollars.”

Several current and former 4-H members and leaders also spoke during the public comment period.

10-year-old Alex Neuman said he joined 4-H last year.

“I hope you find a way to keep 4-H running so kids like me have a group where we belong,” Neuman stated.

Tomahawk High School junior Maggie Lashua said 4-H has provided her with numerous opportunities to work towards her goal of becoming a large animal veterinarian, explaining that she attended a two-week camp at the University of Kentucky, where she was able to gain hands-on experience working with a variety of animals.

“None of that would have been possible without 4-H,” Lashua stated.

Carolyn Van Asten, an alumnus of the Lincoln County 4-H Club, a current leader with the Hi-Los club and a mother of two active members of the Hi-Los, said 4-H is “designed to raise young civic leaders.”

“We are raising library board members, school board members, city council members and future county supervisors in this organization,” Van Asten said.

Next county board meeting

The next Lincoln County Board of Supervisors meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m.

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