BY MELANIE BUCK –
The November meeting of the Polk County Quorum Court was packed as 4H members and their families came to help encourage the court to approve an increase in budget for the Polk County Extension Office, who heads up 4H, Family and Consumer Sciences, and much, much more.
County Extension Agent Carla Vaught presented a budget increase request of $19,000 to the Justices of the Peace for the purpose of hiring and additional agent. Currently, Vaught is the only agent and only has room in the budget to hire one more person. However, ideally, she needs two. In the past, there has been one full time person for Family and Consumer Sciences, which teaches a multitude of things including food safety, resource management, nutrition, and exercise. In addition to an FCS agent, there has also been a part-time agent in charge of 4H. After the retirement of FCS Agent Kim Hughes, the two positions were consolidated into one.
“We have learned that did not work,” explained Vaught. “You can’t devote 75% of your time to 4H and only 25% to FCS and expect them to work out.” Now that they know both positions need their own agent, Vaught said the funding was all they needed.
In the Extension service world, at least in Arkansas, all counties pay 24% of the total funding, while the state pays the remaining 76%. In Polk County’s case, this year, Vaught asked the Quorum Court for approximately $65,000, plus utilities; more than $19,000 above last year. “We are called a cooperative extension because of the longstanding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U of A Division of Agriculture and our county. It takes both organizations to provide the level of needed services for our communities. The MOU provides services back to the county based on the level of financial support from the county. That’s a four-to-one return on investment for the county.”
Vaught went on the tell the court, “I can’t think of a program in the county that has a broader reach than the Extension Office. We reach people in each one of your JP districts. From the landowners who make a living in agriculture to the senior citizen on food stamps, from age 5 to 95, we touch them all.” The Extension Office provides a plethora of wide ranging services in addition to those already listed. They also provide soil testing, manure testing, research based best management practices for agriculture producers, growing food, preserving food, educational resource management for expectant mothers and seniors on food stamps, advise extension homemaker volunteers and Master Gardeners, life skill development, and many more.
Although several JP’s opposed the increase due to tight budget strings and the looming jail funding issue, Vaught and her team of supporters pleaded their case. Vaught said to JP’s, “As a citizen of Polk County and an Extension Agent, I am proud of what we have created to serve our people. I would like to continue to move these programs forward. Like you have been to our county, I believe our office has been a wise steward of our county’s financial resources. I hope you believe in us enough to fund our needs.”
The court agreed to a compromise and granted a $9,500 increase in 2017 and 2018, and in 2019, raise it to the full $19,000 requested. County Judge Brandon Ellison, who presides over the Quorum Court, said, “I am happy for the Cooperative Extension because it has good and worthy educational programs that benefit Polk County. I am disappointed that the state keeps shifting the cost to counties, all the while, county revenues have been static for the last several years and education funding always increases. Our elected officials and employees have made a commitment over the last six years to sacrifice without complaint. There has been a net loss in the number of county positions and only one pay increase of 3% in the last 5 budget years. Our Quorum Court has done a masterful job to keep us afloat while we weather this storm. As you know, we have a state mandate to improve and expand our jail and a short time to do it. Emergency 911 costs are soaring with less revenue due to diminishing telephone landlines. Inflation over the last 6 years, with no additional revenue, makes the budget process challenging. When you consider that the county’s portion of the cooperative extension budget request was $80,046 for 2017, up from $40,265 in 2013, you can understand why the Quorum Court struggled a bit to justify passage. I am glad a compromise could be made.”
Vaught was extremely thankful for the generosity of the Quorum Court. “We know they have a job to do and we are thankful they chose to support us.”
An advisory committee oversees the operations of the extension office. The committee is made up of sixteen Polk County citizens and all recommended that the budget increase be requested. John Vacca, a committee member, wrote a letter to the court thanking JP’s for their consideration. In part, the letter stated, “I want to personally thank you for approving funding for additional staff to efficiently execute the services and programs that our county has asked for, and more importantly, what our county needs. Budget matters always weigh heavily on our elected officials and fiscal responsibility to your constituents is paramount, but the payback to the county on this funding is incalculable.”