Woodford County extension's future uncertain

Jessica Van Beek

EUREKA — While the configuration of the new multi-county format for the Woodford County Extension Service office is known, uncertainty still remains.

Illinois is currently at its worst financially in terms of funding the extension service. In all, $7 million in funding has been lost. As a result, several county offices will be partnering with others to continue providing services.

The University of Illinois Extension, according to Woodford County Extension Director Cynthia Baer, provides people with unbiased research information for informed decisions.

“This new organizational map includes larger multi-county unit operations with a local presence in every county,” said Bob Hoeft, interim director of Extension.  

“Several factors, including partnering agencies, potential for clientele to relate to each other and geographic resources were considered in the multi-county configurations.”

The Woodford County office will be partnering with Livingston and McLean counties.

According to Baer, as the unit is undergoing staff changes, it is still undetermined as to whether services provided by the Woodford County office will be cut.

If programs will need to be cut, it will be based upon public surveys as well as feedback from the extension council, which is made up of 15 residents. Extension administration, state program priorities and funding restrictions on staff programs will also be taken into account.

If there are program areas with no funding, Baer said, the Woodford County office should be able to add staff as time goes on and the economy improves.

She added surveys that follow the programs almost all show significant impact from extension programs.

“Post-program surveys show that people definitely retained and the programs are beneficial,” Baer said.

Baer said the 4-H program is one that is important and the office will make sure it has adequate staffing.

Annually, the Woodford County office serves 455 members of the 4-H program. In comparison, Livingston County has 450 members and McLean County has 1,168. Combined, that makes more than 2,000  members. Baer said put together, that could make the top 4-H multi-county unit in the state. She said all three counties have “wonderful” extension programs and combined will be one of the strongest units.

Baer said with the partnership, there will be better opportunities for federal funding as well as local not-for-profit resources. According to Baer, because part of the revenue for extension services comes from county tax dollars, it is important to ensure that money collected from each county stays in and serves that county.

Baer said to ensure this, most directors are in regular contact with the county board. Accountability will be examined based on regular program and fiscal updates that show how resources are spent in each county.

“It is probably the best way to handle such a decrease in finances for the short term,” Baer said.

Baer said the change will bring about more programming and foster a cooperative partnership with neighboring counties. However, Baer also said there is a “wonderful” staff history at the Woodford branch, so change will be difficult. The new multi-county unit will be effective July 1, 2011. There are many decisions to be made — primarily in the areas of staffing, program priorities, and offices.

“We will be turning our attention to those matters in the coming months, and staff will be given more direction on these issues in the coming weeks,” Baer said. “County directors and educators will be receiving notices of non-reappointment and will be reapplying for the new positions this summer and fall. Woodford has been blessed with an excellent staff over the years; unfortunately, staffing will change due to the cuts in state funding.”

Baer said the extension services have a positive impact on the community and are available to everyone. With the partnership, there will be more programming available over time. She said the status of the Woodford office is yet to be determined, but she hopes to retain its current space with full hours. Baer added the office appreciates the community and county support.