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Extension changes may lead to higher county costs
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MONROE - Green County Agriculture Agent Mark Mayer still has a number of questions after the University of Wisconsin-Extension outlined administrative changes to accommodate for funding cut by the state in its 2015-2017 budget.

"There are a lot of answers yet to be determined," Mayer said.

Chief among those unanswered questions is the cost to counties once the changes are fully implemented. Expenses have not yet been outlined, but contracts will require a higher investment by counties.

"Nobody knows what the bill is going to be, we just know it's going to higher," Mayer said.

Discussion of the reorganization plan by the Green County Agriculture and Extension Education Committee took up most of the meeting Wednesday. Mayer attended the first part of a two-day meeting in Wisconsin Dells on Tuesday. He said the first announced plan only outlined intentions for staff, not specifically how programs will be affected. However, there are six or seven counties upset at the proposed model, Mayer said.

Plans to restructure leadership will be implemented across all 72 Wisconsin counties. Originally, nine work groups comprised of Extension employees came together to draft ideas on how best to implement changes. Mayer was a member of one of these groups, which were completed before the creation of the Integration Work Group in December.

The staffing change recommendations are the first announcement of the reorganization. Currently, the administrative structure for Wisconsin counties begins with roughly 97 county directors and department heads, 30 to 35 of which are full-time employees, conducting day-to-day tasks and performance reviews. Across the state, 93 county department heads work on some administrative duties while spending the rest of their time educating through programs. Directly above in hierarchy are the four full-time regional directors, who are the hiring authority for county-based staff. One full-time associate dean deals with any escalation of issues and problems for county-based staff and at the top is the dean, another full-time employee.

Proposed changes eliminate regional directors and the associate dean. Instead, two full-time assistant deans would serve directly below the dean, which will likely be placed in north and south points of the state. Roughly 22 full-time employees would serve as area extension directors throughout the state. The directors would serve as both the hiring authority and day-to-day management of county-based staff. Because Extension divisions will be consolidated into groups of four or five counties, area extension directors will oversee up to five departments at a time.

In all, Mayer said, the plan would eliminate 60 to 80 positions statewide, which equates to roughly one per county. There are already 48 positions which are unfilled throughout the system.

Green County will be working in conjunction with Lafayette, Grant and Iowa counties. However, Mayer will likely be splitting his time between Green and Rock counties, an example of how different counties can share programming educators.

There will also likely be a higher cost to the county. Currently the county contributes 40 percent of employee pay. Mayer said that figure is likely to jump to above 50 once more details are released.

Another change may remove the authority of the Green County Board to make hiring decisions.

"This is just my opinion," Mayer said. "I think counties will have less authority over who gets hired."

Supervisor Art Carter dismissed the idea.

"If we're paying 50 percent, we're going to have an opinion," Carter said.

Mayer said hiring the new positions would likely be internal to ensure people from the area are put in place. While area directors should be hired by July, there will be an unstable transitional period. Initially, the plan was to have directors performing all duties of traditional department heads by July, but Mayer said that was changed once organizers realized "the disaster it would have been." Full changes will likely take place by Jan. 1.

Mayer also questioned the availability of one person spanning five counties. If one person oversees a number of departments, he said he was unsure how they would be able to address concerns at a local level and communicate effectively with older area farmers. Mayer said he was also concerned how many duties would fall to support staff.

Reorganization updates still need to be announced. While staff composition has been presented, program changes and the possible changes for areas are still being decided. Mayer said there will be more information released in April, which is when the county will be able to establish expenses.