DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A Piscataquis County proposal to cut University of Maine Cooperative Extension service funds would mean the closure of the Dover-Foxcroft Extension office and the relocation of personnel, a UM official warned Thursday.
Faced with a projected loss of about $86,000 in revenue and rising fixed costs, the Piscataquis County commissioners have proposed $90,000 worth of cuts to keep the tax commitment basically the same as last year, according to Commissioner Tom Lizotte.
Included in that amount is a reduction of $25,850 for the Extension service, which represents the salary of a secretarial position.
“This is not a year that we can go to the taxpayers and say we’re going to increase your county tax in the middle of a recession with 15 percent employment,” Lizotte said at Thursday’s budget advisory committee meeting.
Lisa Phelps, program administrator for University of Maine Cooperative Extension, told county officials she recognized the difficult decisions they had to make but urged them not to reduce the contribution to the Extension service. She said it has always been funded by federal, county and state funds.
If the cut is made, Phelps said, the local office would close and county residents would have Extension service programs only through its Web site or the toll-free number in Orono. There would be no 4-H and no other participation by the Extension service in such activities as tourism, the Master Gardener program, after-school programs or the Senior Network, she said.
More than 30 people, some of whom were either Extension service employees or who served on its executive board, attended the meeting to support the organization, which has provided educational programs for youth, adults and senior citizens in the county since 1919.
Nancy Matulis and pastor Tom Bruce, both of Dover-Foxcroft, and Edwin Treworgy of Milo were among the residents who expressed support for the service. Matulis spoke about the service’s partnership in the Senior Network in Dover-Foxcroft, Bruce spoke about the assistance the organization has provided to the Living Word Ecumenical Food Cupboard, and Treworgy spoke about its participation in a Milo after-school program.
Lizotte said the county’s support is not limited to the $33,700 being requested for the secretarial position, copy machine rental and office supplies. Excluding that position, the county provides the Extension service a building, rent, cleaning costs, maintenance, fuel oil, all utilities, telephone, postage, and insurance — all at taxpayer expense. That value in this year’s budget is close to $90,000 when the secretarial funds are included, he said.
Commissioner Fred Trask and Lizotte noted the inconsistencies in funding among counties. Penoboscot County paid $80,000 last year for the Extension service but did not provide office space, they noted. Other support ranged from $42,000 with no office space provided in Franklin County to $78,750 in Cumberland County in 2009.
Phelps acknowledged the different funding structures in place. A few buildings are actually owned by Extension associations in various counties. All of the counties provide office space, operating costs and support staff support, she noted. The counties pay the support person’s salary, but UMaine pays the benefits as well as the salaries and benefits of the other employees.
While Piscataquis County’s per capita costs for the Extension service are higher because of its small population, UMaine has dedicated more staff and resources to the county than others because of its unique needs, according to Phelps.
Those needs and the influence the office closing may have in the county prompted Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan to suggest finding a solution.
“This Cooperative Extension program just affects so many people and so many lives out there that I really think this is an asset to Piscataquis County,” he said Thursday. “I really think we ought to just take a couple of minutes and think hard about it.”
More discussions are expected as the budget advisory committee continues its review of the proposed spending plan, according to Lizotte. Its recommendations will be reviewed by the commissioners before a public hearing next month.
“We’re not crying wolf in the county commissioners office when we say we’ve heard from a lot more people than are in this room that they cannot afford a tax increase in Piscataquis County’s tax commitment this year,” Lizotte said.
Lizotte said every line item has been scaled back and the budget includes no pay or cost-of-living increases. The Extension service budget needs to be reduced as do all the other accounts, he said.
“It’s either that or going to a county employee and saying we’re cutting your job in order to save an 0
Extension secretary’s job,” he said. “These are the tough choices we must make.”