Oregon State University Extension Service is looking to taxpayers for help funding local outreach and education programs in Umatilla and Morrow counties.
A citizens advisory committee has proposed creating two new service districts for OSU Extension — one in each county. If approved by voters, the districts would tax at a rate of 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
That money would go toward paying for things like additional staff, supplies, maintenance and utility costs. OSU Extension not only has farm and livestock agents working across both counties, but supports educational programs such as 4-H and Master Gardeners.
The Umatilla County extension district would also include OSU’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center north of Pendleton and Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where scientists conduct experiments to improve farming practices.
Mary Corp, who serves as both the regional administrator for OSU Extension and director at CBARC, said the districts would add much-needed sustainability to the budget. Twenty-five of Oregon’s 36 counties already have extension districts in place.
Both county boards of commissioners would oversee the districts and set their budget committees, constituting three citizens and three commissioners.
Corp said they are aiming for May 2018 to place the district on the ballot, though it will be a long process going forward.
First, OSU Extension must convince Umatilla and Morrow county commissioners to approve an order initiating the development of a special district. Then, Corp said, they will be looking to get resolutions of support from all 17 incorporated cities across the two counties.
Voters will have the final say, and though new taxes are never the most popular choice, Corp said she is confident in the communities’ support for OSU Extension.
“People really see a lot of value in the work we do,” Corp said.
As it stands, OSU Extension is already supported in part through general fund dollars from both counties. In their most recent budgets, Umatilla County will be contributing $321,090 while Morrow County has earmarked $167,065.
Still, Corp said funding is on the decline due to cuts in state and federal funding. That has left OSU Extension without the ability to fully staff programs or address new needs.
An advisory group consisting of eight different stakeholders started meeting about a year and a half ago to go over their options, and they decided in May that a service district would be the best choice to generate long-term stability.
The agricultural research stations, meanwhile, are also finding themselves scraping for funding. Back in 2008, the university decided that 25 percent of each station’s budget must come from local dollars, and since then Corp said CBARC has received a block grant worth $250,000 from the Oregon Wheat Growers League.
“If I didn’t have that block grant coming in, I would be in the red,” Corp said.
However, Corp said the Wheat Growers League no longer has the money to continue that level of support as wheat prices and acreage decline.
“They’ve told me they see this (grant) sunsetting very soon,” she said.
At HAREC, director Phil Hamm said he has also had to go fundraising for as much money as he can just to keep the doors open. Some dollars have come from the Oregon Potato Commission, and some from local growers.
“It’s been a pain in my neck to go out and search for dollars,” Hamm said.
An extension district would ensure the facilities remain in shape, Hamm said, with substantial economic rewards for the region. Agriculture contributes roughly a half-billion dollars in farm gate value for both Umatilla and Morrow counties, and that total increases to $1 billion if you add in the value from trucking and food processing.
OSU Extension helps to keep the industry thriving with programs and research, Hamm said.
“We have provided what our stakeholders would say is very important information for what they do,” he said.
OSU Extension will make its initial pitch to Morrow County commissioners on July 19. The same presentation will also be given to Umatilla County commissioners, though a date has not yet been set.
Don Russell, Morrow County commissioner, said Corp has already met with each commissioner individually. Initially, he is in favor of the district but has some questions about whether the state will pull additional funding if it moves forward.
George Murdock, Umatilla County commissioner, said the county is extremely supportive of OSU Extension.
“It’s one of those things where the return on investment is many times over,” Murdock said. “We’re talking high-value operations that require a high level of sophistication. That’s the return we’re getting from cooperative extension.”
Hamm said the district would be beneficial across all sectors of extension, from farmers to families with children in 4-H.
“It’s nice to see all these folks appreciate what we do,” he said.