Uncertain future for Woodford County extension office

DeWayne Bartels

EUREKA - Early last month, when a restructuring plan for University of Illinois Extension service offices was announced, Cynthia Baer, director of the Woodford County office, was not caught off guard.

Baer, who became director of the Woodford County office in 2007, said she has seen something like this coming for some time.

“Since I began, there have been periodic financial concerns,” Baer said.

“In 2008, Gov. Blagojevich withheld all our funding. We had indications as early as December that changes would have to be made.”

State cuts

The decision to work toward consolidating county offices is due to “unprecedented cuts in state funding,” said Robert Hoeft, director of the U of I Extension Service.

Hoeft said the new plan, despite staffing cuts and office closures, will maintain a local presence in every county.

The restructuring effort, Hoeft added, will address the deteriorating financial situation the extension service finds itself in, yet provides for the continuation of extension services.

Gov. Pat Quinn, in his state budget proposal on March 10, cut extension funding by $5.56 million.

The extension service’s overall budget for Fiscal Year 2009 is about $65 million. That funding supports 800 jobs. The funding sources break down as 18 percent federal, 21 percent local counties, 46 percent state, and 15 percent grants and revenue-generating activities.

Response

Baer said she is in discussions with county extension directors in Peoria, Tazewell, Marshall and Putnam counties about how to configure services in Central Illinois.

Asked if it looked like the main regional office would come down to Woodford, Peoria and Tazewell counties, Baer said, “It depends on what partnerships we work out, We’re looking at all our options. We will have to work out services.”

Baer said the Woodford County office is not in crisis mode over this announcement. But, she said, from a financial standpoint the office has been in crisis mode for some time.

“In terms of finances we have received zero dollars from the state since last July,” Baer said. “We are surviving on local dollars and on donations.”

Baer said she does not know if the Peoria or Woodford county office serves more people. Baer said she is also unaware of any organized efforts to sway the powers-that-be to leave the Woodford County office open to serve the region.

What, Baer said, she is aware of is concerns from Woodford County residents about the office in Eureka being closed.

“Since March I have been surveying our stakeholders. I have received more than 100 surveys back. More arrive everyday.

There are a lot of concerns about 4-H and the Master Gardener’s program continuing. We will keep 4-H programs running,” Baer said.

“Woodford County 4-H will remain its own entity. The Woodford County 4-H Fair, which is a treasure, will remain here. The goal is to have minimal impact on services. Our goal is to have satellite services in each county, probably with reduced staff and hours.”

The impact of any closures, Baer said, will be mostly on staff, not services.

“We all hate change. It will be hard, but in the long run we will be on more stable economic footing,” Baer said. “This will sustain us better.”