MANDAN, N.D. — The North Dakota State Board of Agricultural Research and Education has dropped a proposal that would have made counties with populations less than 2,000 pay more to keep their own extension agents.
The board made the unanimous decision at its meeting on Jan. 12 at the Northern Great Plains Research Lab south of Mandan. While it has agreed all counties will be treated equally in extension funding, the board has not finalized how the state and counties will split the costs.
The board cited the overwhelmingly negative public testimony regarding its proposal as the reason for moving back to equal treatment of counties.
“We do listen,” said board member Mike Beltz, who ran the meeting. “We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Neither board chair Keith Peltier nor North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring were in attendance at the meeting. Vice chair Mark Birdsall and member Sarah Lovas appeared via teleconference.
The 16-member SBARE is responsible for budgeting and policy making associated with the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and North Dakota State University Extension Service. The North Dakota Legislature during its 2017 session made cuts almost across the board, including a 14.5 percent cut to the North Dakota State University Extension Service. SBARE is tasked with figuring out how to best deliver services within the funding amount.
Under current agreements, counties pay 50 percent of county extension agents’ salaries, as well as costs for support staff, office supplies and management. The state picks up 50 percent of salaries and all fringe benefits, including insurance.
One proposal going forward would have had counties with fewer than 2,000 people pay 60 percent of extension agent salaries and benefits while the state would cover the other 40 percent. The counties also would have to pay for any costs related to support staff, office supplies and management. The more populated counties would pay 40 percent to the state’s 60 percent of agent costs.
Six counties would have been charged more under the proposal: Golden Valley, Logan, Oliver, Sheridan, Slope and Steele counties. The seventh North Dakota county with a population of less than 2,000, Billings County, merged its extension office with neighboring Stark County.
People from the counties that would have been affected provided testimony about why the proposal was unfair and how it would hurt their communities.
“SBARE received over 100 letters. There were many individuals that came in to testify in person about the value of extension, about the value of local extension, the services that extension agents provide,” Chris Boerboom, director of extension for North Dakota State University, said.
In the end, the board decided it didn’t want to push counties to merge extension offices just because they have low populations.
“It doesn’t really make sense” to treat some counties differently, Beltz said.
Board member JoAnn Rodenbiker pointed out that the state does not have a separate funding formula for small schools; when school districts decide to merge, they do it based on their own local decisions.
SBARE directed Boerboom to work with the North Dakota Association of Counties and the North Dakota County Commissioners Association to determine the funding breakdown between state and counties. Board members indicated they were hoping for a split of 40 percent from counties and 60 percent from the state.
Boerboom said regional extension directors have talked to officials in about two thirds of North Dakota counties about the possibility of a 40-60 split. At that funding level, some counties are concerned about having to make changes or cuts to their extension programming.
SBARE also has to grapple with determining priorities for research funding in the state.
Members of SBARE said they hope people who testified about the importance of extension during the SBARE hearings will take their advocacy a step further.
“The people who came to us need to talk to their representatives,” Beltz said.
Boerboom suggested that when people experience a program from which they benefit or which they enjoy, they should let lawmakers know. They also should consider thanking their county commissions for their support of extension and continue contacting SBARE to let them know what’s working, he said.
“There’s been a lot of education that has occurred … from the public, from counties to SBARE right now,” Boerboom said. “The next step we need to continue with is to help educate some of our legislators about the value of extension.”