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MSU Extension Seeks Millage on Aug. 4 Ballot

After 100 years, Extension forced to ask taxpayers for help

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HARRISON – The local MSU Extension is one of the budget items the Clare County Board of Commissioners has been forced to eliminate for the coming year, due to the current and projected revenue shortfalls, both county and state. MSUE has long been a favored expenditure in Clare County, in large part because of its long-term impact on 4-H participants, and in previous hard financial times its representatives and advocates have turned out en masse to defend it at BOC budget meetings. Now, it is realized, that the solution is not so simple as asking more loudly; simply put, the county’s cupboard is bare.

That leaves only one choice: ask the taxpayers directly for help. To that end, MSUE District Director Shari Spoelman headed up an interactive presentation done via Zoom the evening of June 3, beginning with an overview of the programs MSU Extension provides for Clare County residents. That began with the reiteration of the organization’s mission statement: “Michigan State University Extension helps people improve their lives through an educational process that applies knowledge to critical issues, needs and opportunities.” She continued with a brief historical review, noting Michigan State University’s founding in 1885 as a state agricultural college; the 1862,1890 and 1994 passing of the Morrill Acts; the 1912 Michigan Legislature issuance to county boards the authority to appropriate funds for Extension teaching and research; and the 1914 establishment by Congress of the Cooperative Extension System. Spoelman also noted the co-supportive connections between the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, MSU AgBioResearch, and the MSU Extension.

She went on to define just who/what is MSU Extension as: a provider of research-based programming across the state for more than 100 years; an organization with 865 faculty and staff available locally to assist communities with agriculture, children and youth development, health an nutrition, and community, food and environment; and, of course, the provider of 4-H youth programming in every county in the state. That statewide reach includes 14 districts; 275-plus educators and specialists; 240-plus paraprofessionals; roughly 150 professionals who provide support; and more than 200 temporary on-call staff and students.

Spoelman again mentioned the idea of the three-legged funding stool, which is comprised of federal investment through the United States Department of Agriculture, state investment through the Legislature, and local investment by county government.

The director was accompanied by the other MSU Extension Clare County education professionals: Michelle Neff, Children and Youth Educator; Alexandria Schunk, 4-H Program coordinator; Teagen Lefere, Finance and Homeownership Program instructor; Coral Beth Rowley, Community Nutrition instructor; and Sherry Landon, office manager. These personnel, combined with other active volunteers and interested parties, the meeting had some 24 participants.

Spoelman emphasized that in addition to the work done by these team members, services are provided by many staff members from neighboring counties as well. She cited local partnerships with county governments, fair boards, conservation districts, schools/after-school programs, Great Start collaboratives, Community Action agencies, Councils on Aging/AAAs, USDA, NRCS and FSAs, Farm Bureaus, Mid Michigan College, Michigan Works!, Mid Michigan Industries, libraries, farmers/markets, health departments, community mental health agencies, community foundation, community outreach events and more.

It was noted that in 2019 MSU Extension had served some 2,299 people in Clare County in the following categories: Agriculture (219); Adult leaders for youth (101); Youth (1,236); Health and Nutrition adults 402; Gardening (79); Communities, Economic Development and Natural Resources (183); and Family Development (79).

Breaking down the offerings in greater detail, the Health and Nutrition Program includes nutrition and physical activity, food safety, disease prevention and management, social/emotional health and SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) education. Gardening and Consumer horticulture incudes soil testing, fielding and answering questions both at the office and by phone, plant and insect identification, disease identification and treatment, a lawn and garden hotline, and Ask an Expert.

The 4-H programs include a total of 30 clubs, 101 adult volunteers and 304 youth participants, a youth group enrollment of 896, and a total of 1,236 (unduplicated) youths served. One statistic showed 54% of Clare County 4-H involved seniors who graduated between 2012 and 2019 had enrolled in college within six months of high school graduation.

The Extension’s Youth Leadership programs include Leadership Development, Financial Literacy, Career Preparation, Youth Action Council, Students of Promise, and Foster Youth. Children and Family Development programs include Early Childhood Education, Building Strong Adolescents; Parenting; and Health Living.

Finance and Homeownership focuses on homeownership education, money management, foreclosure counseling, and Step Forward Michigan – all programs aimed at helping people understand their finances, and how to keep and stay in their homes.

Community, Food and Environment focuses on community and economic development, government and public policy, natural resources/lakes and forestry, and community food systems.

And, of course, the Agriculture and Agribusiness offerings are vast, with ag educators crossing county lines to provide their expertise in the areas of  pest and crop management; vegetable production/farm to market food safety; dairy (Michigan Milk Producers Association); ornamental agriculture/Christmas trees; farm financial management/farm bill education; beef production; farm stress, and energy conservation – all focused on increasing profitability and improving finances and farm success.

The partnership with Mid Michigan College was addressed as well. That joint venture has enabled greater exposure for Mid, the creation of new programs, and the use of MSU Extension personnel for Lifelong Learning programs. The collaborative Science Blast and Winter Blast events held at Mid have seen participation by hundreds of adults and hundreds of children.

Spoelman wound up her overview with MSU Extension’s 100-year history in Clare County, where it is a trusted and dynamic resource which can quickly mobilize to meet emerging issues, as well as providing solid core programming and access to researchers through MSU.

Having started out her presentation by acknowledging that “the county is in tough shape financially,” and that the money just isn’t there for the county to fund MSU Extension, Spoelman explained that looking forward to Aug. 4, 2020, there really is no alternative but to go to the taxpayers with a millage request: the first time voters have been asked to support MSUE using a property tax levy. She provided a chart of the county’s previous allocations for MSUE, beginning with 2003 budget funding of approximately $140,000. That figure rapidly became $80,000 and over the following years hovered around that mark, fluctuating slightly up, and mostly down, hitting $60,000 in 2017. It rose slightly the next year, but now the county’s budget reality has quashed any chance for renewed funding.

The MSUE millage budget request proposal of 0.13 mill (13 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation) for a period of six years (2020-2025) would yield an estimated $141,994 per year, and would enable funding for a full-time 4-H (plus Americorps), a part-time (three days/week) office manager, phone, internet, overhead costs, supplies, and consumer horticulture. If passed in August, this millage would be included on December tax bills, and MSUE would receive funds beginning in 2021.

This MSU Extension/4-H millage cost for the median value ($88,400) owner-occupied housing unit is anticipated to be $6.29 per year. For a house with a $100,000 valuation, the cost would be $7 per year. Spoelman equated that cost as being minimal, while the value is priceless.

The underlying focus of the meeting was to brainstorm ways for getting the word out to taxpayers that the issue would be on the ballot, along with an information campaign which would inform of the multi-faceted value the MSUE services provide within the county. As with any government-funded agency, staff cannot advocate, cannot go out and tell community members to vote for this issue. They can provide information on their work and what they provide. Thus, it falls to volunteers to form a “Friends of MSU Extension” group, an ad hoc committee to get the word out within the community. There are challenges, however, such as the pandemic-caused hurdles: election day timeline changes brought about by increased mail-in voting; economic stress on families/voters; inability to meet in person/large groups; inability to have events/rallies; or the inability to attend in person for speaking engagements.

Then it got down to the basics of making contacts, reminders of the importance of voting, getting the word out via social/commercial media, flyers and yard signs. And, there is the simple cost to produce those promotional items, which in turn means fundraising. Many of those in attendance at the June 3 meeting offered their experience and insights on elections/campaigning/fundraising, while also noting the short time available to accomplish the task.

And so, the work begins. County residents should keep their eyes open for any information being provided on the millage effort, and ensure they are well-informed regarding the necessity for this shift in funding source. Those who may want to get involved in the effort can call the MSU Extension (989-539-7805) to get connected with those who are spearheading this campaign.

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