The Montezuma County commission voted last week to defund the Colorado State University Extension office in Cortez, saying it has lost confidence in the program.
The office, located downstairs in the county building, provides agricultural services to farmers and ranchers and runs various programs, including the local 4-H youth club.
The preliminary decision to stop funding came as a surprise to county ag extension director Tom Hooten, who has held the post for the past six years.
“It was out of the blue. They made me aware of their concerns during an executive session last week, then this week they decided to defund the office,” he said.
Hooten is an employee of Colorado State University Extension, an agricultural outreach and education program established in rural counties across the state. The extensions help run county fairs and 4-H programs, conduct scientific research and offer technical and educational support for farmers and ranchers.
The CSU-supported offices also depend on county financial support. Montezuma County budgets about $108,000 for the program, which includes pay for two full-time staff members at the extension office, said county administrator Melissa Brunner.
One is an administrative assistant, and the other runs the 4-H club, a popular agriculture education program. The county kicks in $13,700 toward Hooten’s salary, with the majority paid for by CSU.
But the commissioners said they didn’t feel the local extension program has been run well, and they have been in discussions with Hooten and CSU about it. Commissioners cited complaints from the public, but did not elaborate, calling it a personnel matter.
“Due to lack of performance, I make a motion to defund the program,” commissioner Larry Don Suckla said on Monday, Oct. 2. The motion passed 3-0.
The commissioners emphasized that their intention was to not jeopardize the youth programs and said the Montezuma County Fair board was doing a good job on its own.
“I don’t feel our community has been served well by our extension agency,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel.
“We’re making a statement, putting people on notice.”
Commissioners said the expectation is that ag extension programs will continue to be funded through 2017. The decision to defund the program for 2018 is preliminary, county officials added, and won’t be final until the budget is approved in December.
Whether the services and jobs in the ag extension office will continue next year is “to be determined,” Ertel said.
The commissioners said there is still opportunity for the office to try and resolve the situation before the budget is finalized.
“Everything is still on the table,” Suckla said.
In an interview, Hooten told The Journal that without county funding, ag extension services and programs that benefit local farmers and ranchers are in jeopardy. The office provides services including horticultural information and consulting, applicator testing, research, bug and weed identification and control, master gardening programs, economic data, range analyses, and community events and classes.
“We serve hundreds of people per month,” Hooten said. “Regarding complaints, I feel it is something that can be addressed and worked out. I would like to resolve the situation, but it is not looking too rosy.”
Hooten has a master’s degree in crop science, and a bachelor’s in horticulture. Before becoming county director, he served as the local ag extension agent for seven years.
“Agriculture is in my heart, I enjoy helping people with their issues and educating youth about farming and ranching,” he said.
CJ Mucklow, western regional director for the CSU Extension, said Thursday that it’s rare that counties defund their extension programs. He said he is aware of the situation at the Montezuma County office, and plans to set up a meeting with county officials and commissioners.
“We hope to resolve it, and that is my priority right now,” he said.