Lincoln County board votes to fund 4-H Coordinator position; no additional Extension funding in 2023 budget

By Jalen Maki

Tomahawk Leader Editor

MERRILL – Although it appears as though 4-H will continue in Lincoln County next year, the county’s UW-Extension program is on the verge of being eliminated.

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the 2023 county budget in early November, following roughly two months of uncertainty surrounding the future of Extension and the services and programs it facilitates, including 4-H.

Facing a $1.2 million shortfall for next year, among the steps proposed by Lincoln County’s Finance and Insurance Committee to balance the budget was to eliminate the county’s portion of funding for UW-Extension. Funding the county’s Extension office has been a joint effort for about a century, with Extension providing about 55% of the monies (roughly $260,000.00 for next year) and the county accounting for the remaining 45% (about $208,000.00).

In September, the board was presented with the first balanced 2023 county budget proposal, which included no funding for Extension. The meeting’s public comment period saw more than a dozen people voice their support for funding Extension and/or maintaining the county’s 4-H program.

It was noted during the meeting that amendments to the budget would be considered at the board’s October meeting, under the condition that the budget remained balanced after the proposed amendments were approved.

After the September board meeting, a letter sent from Extension to Supervisors laid out the programs, services and organizations that could feel an impact from a lack of Extension funding, including youth mental health awareness, alcohol and drug abuse education and agricultural programming.

The Tomahawk and Merrill school districts, police departments, libraries and Aspirus hospitals, as well as 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, the Lincoln County Health Department, Lincoln County Social Services, the Lincoln County Land Conservation Department and other organizations would also be affected, the letter said.

During the board’s meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, Oct. 18, Supervisors took action on a pair of proposed amendments to the 2023 county budget.

First, the board unanimously voted to approve an amendment allocating $45,000.00 in Forestry revenue to Extension in order to fund a 4-H Coordinator position, effectively maintaining the county’s 4-H program for next year.

After that vote, an amendment that sought to fully fund Extension with about $200,000.00 in unassigned funds failed by a 4-14 vote.

Public comment period

Prior to the votes on the budget amendments, several people utilized the meeting’s public comment period to express their support for Extension and urge the board to fully fund it.

Patti Hilgendorf, Executive Director of Kinship of Tomahawk, discussed the impacts a lack of Extension funding could have on Tomahawk’s youth mentorship program.

Hilgendorf, who also serves on the board of Tomahawk Together, a nonprofit organization that has worked to support families and youth in the community for more than 30 years, explained that in 1997, Extension was “invaluable” in facilitating a roundtable discussion with Tomahawk Together and community members that led to the creation of Kinship.

Extension has worked with Kinship since its inception, providing programming, resources and funding opportunities, she said.

Hilgendorf explained that Kinship currently has more than 50 families and 70-plus children in the program, adding that with Extension’s assistance, programs such as 4-H and FoodWIse are available to families, and mentors are provided with training opportunities.

“Our kids come from very at-risk backgrounds – lots of mental health (issues), lots of incarcerated parents, lots of our kids being raised by grandparents and even great-grandparents,” she said. “And if it wasn’t for the resources and the funding opportunities the UW-Extension helps us with, I don’t know that we would be, 25 years later, the successful program that we are.”

Hilgendorf urged the board to reconsider cutting funding for Extension.

“We have some less fortunate people – over 50 families – in our small community,” she stated. “We need the programs the UW-Extension offers. … The programs I have lined up for training and for resources, they go away in January. I won’t have the support for the mentors that we need to deal with some of the kids and the issues that we’re dealing with.”

Bonnie Rudie, coordinator of Strong Bodies, a strength training program for older adults, explained that she started with one 10-member class in Tomahawk in 2009. Today, there are 80 participants in five classes.

Individuals who have suffered strokes and live with Parkinson’s disease, as well as community members in their early- and mid-90s, have joined the class and have improved their physical and emotional health, she said.

“I have ten leaders,” Rudie stated. “All these people are volunteering because they see the value of this program. Without UW-Extension, we’re going to go down the drain, and it’s disheartening.” 

Public hearing on budget

A public hearing regarding the proposed 2023 Lincoln County budget will be held in County Board Room #257 of the Lincoln County Service Center, 801 N. Sales St., Merrill, on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. The board will vote on the budget in a meeting following the hearing.

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