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Extension crisis should have been avoided

November 28, 2012
It looks like a potential crisis has been averted. That is good, but, like most crises, it could have — and, in reality, should have — been avoided.

The Crawford County Council, during its 2013 budget adoption in September, voted to appropriate just $20,000 toward the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service's request of $39,060 for the salaries of two educators at the local office in English. Councilman William Breeding was the only member to oppose the reduction.

For years, the county has paid about half of the salaries, with Purdue paying the balance as well as benefits. It's not a unique arrangement; that's the way it works in every Extension Service office in the state.

The council, however, balked for a variety of reasons. While it barely came up at this month's meeting when an overflow crowd of Extension supporters successfully pled that the funding be reinstated, the council in September expressed frustration that local folks have little say in who is hired as educators.

Whether or not it is true, as has been suggested, that there is a years-old verbal agreement between Purdue and the county that one of the educators is to be from Crawford County is irrelevant. Agreements not written on paper lose meaning over time as the people involved change and memories fade.

Regardless, while Purdue has the final say on who is hired, the county Extension board interviews the applicants and gives input. Plus, if county officials truly want more input in who is hired, they should have a better understanding of what services Extension provides.

The council in September admitted that it didn't fully know what it was getting for the county's $39,060 and hoped that withholding a portion of the funding would force Extension officials to explain how the programs they offer benefit county residents.

However, if council members have doubts, isn't it their job as overseers of the county's finances to ask those questions before approving the budget? Councilman Steve Bartels said he did ask but didn't receive a thorough answer. What about the others?

The council should be applauded for being good stewards of local dollars — it shouldn't just rubber-stamp budget requests — but, at the same time, it needs to make sure that it isn't cutting programs that are helping the people it represents. That means taking the time to learn what those programs are and how they impact people.

Being a council member isn't just a three-hour job on the second Tuesday night of each month. Public meetings are important, but sometimes they don't supply enough information for a vote. In those cases, it is each council member's responsibility to seek out the information.

By cutting first and getting the information second, not only would the council have done away with a second educator position that it wasn't sure was needed or not, but it would have put in jeopardy a couple of positions that don't even receive local funding and that help the two most vulnerable segments of the population: young people and senior citizens.

That is because the two Family Nutrition Program assistant positions, although federally funded, are tied to the number of educators in the office. In fairness, the council didn't know that when it voted to reduce the funding for the educators, but therein lies the problem.

In the end, both sides got what they wanted: Extension supporters received a pledge from the council to have the funding for the second educator position restored and the council learned how Extension programs are benefiting residents.

It's just a shame that it happened the way it did.

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