Montezuma County commissioners are reconsidering their preliminary decision to defund the Colorado State University Extension office, which includes the popular 4-H program.
The commissioners said earlier this month that they have lost confidence in the effectiveness of the extension office run by Director Tom Hooten, a CSU employee.
They voted on Oct. 2 to eliminate its budget, but a final decision will not be made until Dec. 1, when the county budget for 2018 is officially approved.
The county kicks in $108,000 toward the extension office, which pays for a portion of Hooten’s salary and two full-time county employees – 4-H Club Director Andrea Jeter and administrative assistant Kathy Harris.
The dust-up prompted a visit from CJ Mucklow, western regional supervisor for the CSU Extension, to visit Cortez and hold two community meetings Wednesday to work out a solution.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla indicated later that the vote to defund was a ploy to get CSU’s attention. He called it “fake news.”
Mucklow said he could not legally discuss personnel issues, but he proposed changes to improve the program. He explained that without county funding for the extension office, the Montezuma County 4-H program would end.
“4-H is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program specifically run through CSU Extension,” Mucklow said. “Without an extension office, 4-H will be gone.”
The commissioners all expressed support for the 4-H program, but were concerned about a drop in participation.
“We want to see it grow to the next level and have been trying to address that,” said commissioner Larry Don Suckla. “Taking away the $108,000 got CJ to come down to address the problem with us.”
Mucklow proposed appointing an extension agent from Dolores County or La Plata County to temporarily oversee the Montezuma County extension office and improve the programs.
He also said more communication between the extension office and the county commission is needed, and said the extension office advisory committee needs to be more active.
“The county commission could appoint members of the advisory committee as a way to help keep track of the extension office,” Mucklow said.
Commissioners Keenan Ertel and James Lambert showed cautious support for continuing funding for the extension office into 2018 under a probationary period that implements changes that show results.
“Bringing in another extension agent to help with this program might help,” Ertel said. “I want quarterly updates from the advisory committee and monthly updates from the extension office.”
Commissioner James Lambert said he was “willing to try the plan at least up until next year’s fair.”
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla pushed for Hooten to be replaced. Mucklow declined to discuss the personnel issue and added that extension staff get annual reviews with performance evaluations and expectations.
Ertel asked for a copy of CSU’s policies on employee evaluations. Suckla stated he felt “there is a lack of accountability in the extension office, and that is hurting programs. It needs a positive change.”
He was critical of the slow pace getting 4-H results from the July county fair published in The Journal. The Journal requested the results since August, and received partial results on Oct. 13.
“It’s a problem when the newspaper requests results and 4-H does not move forward with it,” he said. “It made the buyers mad that they bought animals and did not get recognition in the newspaper.”
Jeter responded the delay was in part due to a new format recording results. She also claimed The Journal is charging to publish 4-H pictures from the fair, and that her department does not have the budget to pay for it.
The Journal’s news department publishes fair and 4-H photos free of charge based on news value and available space.
The local extension office offers many services for the agricultural community, Mucklow said, but the programs need to be communicated more to the public and local government. He urged the commission to keep funding the program.
“Give it a whirl, give the office a chance to improve with some oversight. Find out in six or eight months if it is going in the right direction,” he said.
Later, Mucklow met with about a dozen 4-H supporters to discuss where improvements are needed and how its rules and regulations are tied to the USDA.
Director Jeter said enrollment has dropped in the program, going from about 256 participants last year to 198 this year. Part of the drop is that people graduate, move away or are involved in other programs such as Future Farmers of America, she said.
“We’re working to get our numbers back up,” she said.
Parents of 4-H kids said there has been some confusion between the fair board and 4-H organizers about who should be in charge of various aspects of 4-H, especially leading up to and during the fair.
Retired CSU Extension agent Jan Senhen said it is necessary to clearly define fair board duties and 4-H duties, and that keeping the two organizations separate is critical to avoid power struggles and gain efficiency.
“The fair board does not oversee 4-H. As a federal youth program, 4-H is organized under the USDA and is overseen by land grant colleges like CSU. The extension office role is to see that federal and state guidelines are followed in the 4-H program.”
It was noted that if extension was defunded for 2018, the local 4-H program would end, but a new agricultural youth club might be formed with a different name.
The 4-H Club provides experiences where young people learn by doing. Kids complete hands-on projects in areas such as health, science, agriculture and citizenship in a structured environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors. Their projects are on display and judged every year at the Montezuma County Fair.
Club leader Lynetta Shull said the program needs to adjust recruitment strategies to attract youths who aren’t farm and ranch kids.
“Our community is changing; not everyone has livestock to show,” she said. “Promote more projects that kids living in an apartment can do.”