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Crow Wing County Board: Extension supporters sound off on budget concerns

More than 30 supporters of Crow Wing County Extension programs attended the county board's committee of the whole meeting Tuesday to take part in a discussion about the possible elimination of a Master Gardener program staff position.

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A screen grab of the University of Minnesota Extension program website. Extension is a century-old partnership between the U of M, state and county government to help make university research and knowledge accessible to Minnesota residents.

More than 30 supporters of Crow Wing County Extension programs attended the county board's committee of the whole meeting Tuesday to take part in a discussion about the possible elimination of a Master Gardener program staff position.

"Extension is very important," said Kathy Edelman, chairwoman of the Extension committee, to board members. "The impact Extension has on the community is huge, whether it be a 4-H'er gaining confidence in project areas or a community resident learning about an invasive plant or an insect we want to keep out of our community."

Susanne Hinrichs, regional director of the University of Minnesota Extension program, presented a budget proposal developed by the Extension committee to Chairman Paul Koering and Commissioners Rachel Reabe Nystrom and Rosemary Franzen. The proposal included four options, all of which represented reductions over the office's 2014 budget.

Although the committee is tasked with making a budget recommendation to the county board each year, this year County Administrator Tim Houle asked for multiple budget alternatives with the goal of reducing the county's property tax levy.

"There is a limitless supply of good things for us to do and there is a limited supply of resources with which to do it, and so you must choose," Houle said Tuesday. "Today is really about a choice, a choice about whether or not you think the general public wants to support continuing to purchase the Master Gardener education program."

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At a June committee meeting, Koering, who serves on the committee, indicated the Master Gardener program is an area where savings could be realized in the Extension budget. Although Koering told the Brainerd Dispatch he spoke for himself and not on behalf of the board, Master Gardener volunteers and committee members were left with the impression the elimination of the position held by Jackie Froemming was a foregone conclusion.

This set off a firestorm of concern and criticism by supporters, who say cutting the coordinator position would be the death knell of a vibrant volunteer program steeped in tradition.

Extension is a century-old partnership between the U of M, state and county government to help make university research and knowledge accessible to Minnesota residents. Its origins arise from the university's status as a land-grant institution, colleges established on federally donated land in the 19th century to increase agricultural and technical education for citizens.

Created in 1977 by U of M Extension, the Master Gardener program trains volunteers to help others in their communities with horticulture. The program is just one of the offerings of the Extension office, which also coordinates the county's 4-H program, offers nutrition education and natural resources education.

Supporters of the 4-H program were visible Tuesday as well, entering the fray when the Extension committee included an option within its budget proposal to reduce the hours of coordinator position of that program equally along with Froemming's position to 60 percent of full time.

Nine-year 4-H member Abby Schreier, who serves as a state ambassador within the program, told the board she would not be the person she is today without 4-H.

"I have developed leadership and public speaking skills," Schreier said. "I plan to attend college to pursue a degree in agriculture education at the U of M ... to share my love of agriculture with young students and help them develop their interests."

Members of the Extension committee said they included the option of reductions to both positions - their second choice - because they feel both programs are equally important to residents of the county. The preferred recommendation from the committee would keep both Froemming and 4-H Program Coordinator Courtney Johnson working 30 hours a week, the same as the current structure, but would not include support staff. The position is currently filled on a temporary basis following the retirement of the previous support staff member.

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Eliminating support staff from the budget represents an 11 percent cut, a cut Master Gardener Jackie Burkey said should be sufficient while maintaining a cost-effective and productive program.

"We're volunteers. We cost you guys nothing," Burkey said. "We need our leader (Froemming) to maximize our talents. ... People are going to complain to you about the tax rate no matter how low you set it."

Koering told the group Tuesday he is not against either of the Extension programs at issue, but in his view they do not fall within what he considers the core responsibilities of government. He encouraged the public to look up the U.S. national debt clock to see the rate at which it is increasing, a rate he said is sending the country in the direction of debt-addled Greece.

"Nobody seems to care," Koering said. "Obviously I'm not in Washington ... but I do have one vote here, and what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to be fiscally responsible for the people. If you really care about our kids at all ... how much have I left for the kids to have to deal with when they're 50 years old?"

Koering said he was elected to ask these questions and he does not appreciate some of the backlash to his opinion on spending county dollars on the Master Gardener program. A comment submitted through the county's website by Herman Bradley of Brainerd, who identified himself as a Master Gardener, characterized Koering as a "dictator" and a "narcissist."

"I was elected to ask questions about what we're spending money on," Koering said. "And if we can't even talk about this without people getting mad and making derogatory comments, how are we ever going to cut anything else or make any big changes? God forbid if we make changes."

Hinrichs apologized to Koering for the comment, noting "civility is really important."

No decisions are made at committee of the whole meetings. The issue will come before the county board as part of its overall budget decisionmaking later this year. Commissioners Paul Thiede and Doug Houge did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

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CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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