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Extension evaluates impending cuts
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MONROE - Uncertainty still looms for the University of Wisconsin-Extension system as Green and Lafayette counties await further instruction from Chancellor Cathy Sandeen in February on how to make budget cuts laid out in the 2015-2017 state budget.

Overall, counties are responsible for $1.2 million in cuts of the total $3.7 million required by the state budget this year. Green County Agriculture Agent Mark Mayer said he has been part of one of nine statewide work groups analyzing the gap between what needs to be done and how far resources can stretch. The groups have been meeting for nearly five months and just recently submitted suggestions on how to reduce spending while maintaining services.

"There will be less of us covering a bigger area," Mayer said. "We can say that for sure."

Southest Regional Director Matt Hanson said departments will likely see "restructuring" in counties for staff less impacted by the funding cuts.

In the nine statewide workgroups, at least one representative of each county was involved. Four of the groups included program representatives on behalf of 4-H, community development, agriculture and family living. Two groups had state specialists and county or tribal representatives because county and tribal funding also contributes to the UW System. Groups overseeing both of these sets of groups were to monitor effective communication while a final group evaluated program impact. Each team was staffed with roughly 10 people.

In total, 80 positions will need to be cut throughout the state. It is estimated roughly half are already vacant and will not be filled. According to the UW-Extension website, there are 26 continuing education programs throughout the state and an Extension location in each of the 72 counties. In 2012, 500 programs affected roughly 1.6 million Wisconsin residents.

In Lafayette County, there are three Extension-funded positions, including two agriculture agents who split their time between Lafayette and Grant counties. Mayer is one of the four full-time positions funded through the UW System. One position is currently vacant.

The time table is set in place. State workers will compile the feedback provided by individual work groups and then submit information to Sandeen in February. Hanson said information will be shared with workers. In March and April, there will be a feedback period for educators and staff to provide more thorough information regarding the proposed changes and a finalization of what will be changed will be announced. Hanson noted the guidelines will be to ensure individuals still receive effective services from UW-Extension. From there, each county will adjust as necessary and changes will be implemented in July.

Mayer said the process may take years to fully realize.

"There are a lot of pieces to be moved," he said. "A fair amount of uncertainty."

Mayer said the uncertainty of budget reductions has already caused a rift in operations. Green and Lafayette counties share a Family Living Educator. As a leader in teaching and applying research findings in family and consumer sciences, the educator helps both counties in areas of parent education and helps provide information for families dealing with divorce or caring for aging relatives. The educator also works with county officials to help with school readiness and family health. The position was recently vacated and can only be filled on an interim basis until the cuts are announced at the beginning of next year and moved on in July. The job posting closed Nov. 29 but only yielded one qualified candidate "because we can't make any promises until July," Mayer said. The position will likely remain vacant if no other applications are submitted.

Hanson admitted a "large number of vacancies" within the system can impact residents of the state.

"This will have a pretty good impact on a lot of folks," Mayer said. UW-Extension involvement in the Green County Fair may dwindle and the organization may take on more of "an educator role," according to Mayer. There is a possibility more than two counties could share resources. Mayer said Green, Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties may be grouped together. However, because there are types of expertise some may deal in, such as agriculture, work could extend to places like Rock County as well.