Oregon State University’s agricultural research and extension programs stand to lose the equivalent of 17 positions under a budget recently approved by state lawmakers.
However, the outlook is much improved from earlier this year, when a budget proposed by Gov. Kate Brown would have resulted in an even sharper reduction of research and extension positions, according to university leaders.
The Legislature approved a 4.7 percent increase, to $66 million, for OSU’s agricultural experiment stations and a 4.6 percent increase, to $47.7 million, for the OSU Extension Service in the 2017-2019 biennium.
Due to the increasing cost of salaries and benefits, though, each program would need an increase of 7.9 percent just to maintain current service levels.
The equivalent of 17 positions must be cut due to the funding gap, but the university doesn’t expect to lay off researchers or extension agents. Rather, positions will be left vacant as people retire or change jobs, said Dan Arp, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
“We will be able to manage this with the normal attrition,” Arp said.
In early 2017, when the state government was facing a $1.8 billion budget shortfall, Brown recommended keeping OSU’s agricultural research and extension budgets flat.
Under that scenario, OSU would have probably been forced to lay people off, said Arp. “It would have been difficult to manage that by attrition alone.”
In OSU’s 2015-2017 budget, the agricultural research and extension programs received a hefty funding boost that allowed for hiring new faculty dedicated to several priorities: working landscapes, water, value-added products, workforce development and food safety.
Those “priority” researchers and extension agents won’t be affected by the reduction in positions, said Scott Reed, director of OSU’s Extension Service.
“This is not a last in, first out budget management thing,” Reed said.
Losing the equivalent of 17 positions is nonetheless a hindrance for OSU, particularly since researchers bring in additional money from grants, said Arp.
“Fewer positions, fewer people out there leveraging dollars,” he said.
Similarly, as there are fewer extension agents, those who remain employed by OSU must cover larger service areas and are spread more thinly across the state, said Reed.
Fortunately, voters in 26 counties have approved tax districts that raise funds for extension through modest property tax increases, he said. “That’s because of the support of the citizens of the state.”
In the 2017 legislative session, OSU also secured the authority to sell $9 million in bonds to help pay for a new 27,000-square-foot Fermentation Sciences and Research Center on the edge of its campus in Corvallis.
The university can only sell those bonds once it raises a matching $9 million in matching funds.
The Tillamook County Creamery Association has already pledged $1.5 million to the new building, which will feature dairy, wine and beer fermentation plants as well as joint cold storage and retail facilities.
Construction of the center is expected to begin within a year and a half.