Extension letter to Lincoln County board lays out potential impacts of proposed funding elimination
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
LINCOLN COUNTY – Employees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension last week sent a letter to each member of the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors regarding a proposal to eliminate funding for Extension in Lincoln County in 2023, which would affect 4-H and other programs.
The letter, signed by Area Extension Director Art Lersch and Assistant Dean Jason Hausler, highlights the potential effects of the proposed slashing of Extension dollars in next year’s county budget.
The letter references statements made by Board Chair Don Friske during the county board’s Tuesday, Sept. 20 meeting. Friske said he had spoken with UW-Extension, and an agreement had been reached that would maintain the county’s 4-H program.
No details on the agreement were provided during the meeting.
On Friday, Sept. 23, Lersch said he had not spoken to Friske personally regarding an agreement and was not aware of an agreement having been made in writing.
Hausler 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.”
Letter aims to provide ‘clarifying information’
The letter from Lersch and Hausler said they had been approached by constituents “confused about the status of UW-Extension funding for 2023 based upon statements made at the board meeting on Sept. 20.”
“As such, we want to provide you, and all other Lincoln County constituents that we work with and serve, clarifying information,” the letter stated.
The letter explained that although Extension funding had been eliminated in the budget proposal presented to Supervisors last month, Extension is aware of a “verbal commitment” by Friske to “provide $45,000.00 in funding to the UW-Extension budget for the purposes of supporting the 4-H program.”
The funding would also maintain the FoodWIse program, a nutrition education program for low-income residents, the letter said.
“As you have heard at previous county board meetings, we provide valuable educational services to the residents, schools, communities and organizations of Lincoln County in partnership with Lincoln County,” the letter stated. “We wanted to take a moment to inform you that should Lincoln County decide to eliminate funding for the Extension office, important programs and services you have heard about will no longer be available to the residents of Lincoln County.”
Services, programs, organizations facing possible impact
The letter stated that if the proposed Extension budget is not amended, 4-H and youth services will discontinue.
Extension said that without funding, it would need to “wind down education services and programming” for county residents by the end of the year. A number of areas would be affected, including Health and Well-Being programming in partnership with the Lincoln County Health Department (LCHD) and county school districts, as well as organizational and business development assistance for non-profit organizations.
Crops and soils research and farmer assistance, StongBodies fitness programming for seniors and “overall office assistance to help stakeholders find answers to a wide variety of questions,” would also be impacted by a lack of funding, the letter said.
“Additionally, without a co-investment from Lincoln County in those program areas, the ability to access regional and state Extension specialists will be lost, given the level of demand from counties continuing to make co-investments,” the letter stated.
The letter laid out a multitude of programs that would be subject to elimination if the county board chooses to exclude Extension funding from next year’s budget.
Initiatives that may cease to exist in the county include Raise Your Voice, which focuses on high school mental health awareness; alcohol and other drug abuse education; the Social Norms Information Campaign, which seeks to reverse adult perceptions about youth behavior; We Cope, which assists in stress and depression reduction, and Focus on Wellness training; organizational development with the Board of Directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Northcentral Wisconsin chapter; and Merrill Area United Way strategic planning.
Numerous other programs may be on the chopping block without Extension funding.
The letter said Lincoln County housing and day care businesses planning throughout the county; town and county rural broadband expansion planning; a youth tractor and machinery certification course; nitrogen enhancement product research plots and nutrient management education for farms, which aim to increase crop yields and protect the environment; nitrogen and sulfur rate effects on winter wheat yield research plots; and Community Health Assessment planning, coordinated with LCHD, could also be affected.
Volunteers who assist with a variety of programs would no longer be supervised by Extension and would not be covered by UW-Madison liability and insurance policies, should the county slash Extension dollars.
Without funding, the county’s Extension office would not be staffed by a front office support professional, forcing it to close to the public, which would result in a “drastic reduction in services to Lincoln county residents, even if funding is reallocated to maintain the 4-H program in 2023,” according to the letter.
Along with services and programs, the letter highlighted more than 20 organizations throughout the county that would be impacted by the elimination of Extension funding.
The Tomahawk and Merrill school districts, police departments, libraries and Aspirus hospitals would feel an affect from a lack of Extension funding, according to the letter.
Kinship of Tomahawk, Tomahawk Main Street Inc., the Tomahawk Senior Center, HAVEN, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Merrill Chamber of Commerce, Parkside Preschool Center in Merrill, the Merrill Enrichment Center, Breitenmoser Farms, LCHD, Lincoln County Social Services, the Lincoln County Land Conservation Department and “many more (organizations) too many to mention” would also be impacted.
“We have been working closely with (the organizations) to communicate the situation,” Extension stated.
Should the board move forward with eliminating Extension dollars from the 2023 county budget, the county would have the option to renew a partnership with Extension down the road.
However, this may not be easy, according to the letter.
“The University has budget limitations that will not allow it to guarantee that Extension resources can be re-allocated to Lincoln County in the future,” the letter explained. “Demands for Extension resources are great throughout the state, and thus we must carefully allocate them where counties are committed to the co-investment.”
Supervisors invited to discuss ‘potential consequences’ with Extension
In the letter, Lersch and Hausler invited Supervisors to reach out to them to discuss the “potential consequences of the decision” before them.
“We value greatly our 102-year partnership with Lincoln County, serving the residents of the county,” the letter stated.