SALEM — A group of citizens has been working behind the scenes for several months on creating a tax service district to fund the Oregon State University Extension Service in Marion County.
The group has received verbal support from county commissioners and city leaders and soon plans to seek county approval to place the initiative on the May 2015 ballot, according to Derek Godwin, administrator of the county’s extension service.
By May of next year, the group hopes to start gathering the 15,500 valid signatures needed to place the initiative before voters, Godwin said.
Godwin said the county extension service advisory committee brought forward the idea to help stem what has been a steady erosion of services the county provides.
In the past three years alone, because of budget cuts, the county has lost a youth development position and extension agents serving dairy, berries, nursery crops, field crops and vegetable crops, Godwin said.
“What happens when we lose these positions is they don’t get refilled,” Godwin said.
“We’re the largest agricultural county in the state, and yet we are losing that connection to our growers,” he said.
“We don’t have the kind of resources that the size of the county’s agriculture warrants,” said John Burt, former staff chair of the county extension service, who is involved in the effort to form the district.
Statewide, Godwin said, extension has lost 62 positions to retirement or displacement since 2004. The cuts came as expenses to man positions have grown and state funding for the OSU extension service has not kept pace.
“At the state, federal and county levels, every year the funding has either been flat or there have been cuts,” said Burt, who retired in 2005.
Twenty-one of Oregon’s 36 counties have formed tax service districts, including several in recent years, among them nearby Polk and Linn counties.
Forming a tax service district has several benefits, Godwin said, including removing a financial burden from the county.
The county currently provides extension about $350,000 annually in general fund support and $100,000 to $150,000 in in-kind support through free rent and use of other county facilities, Godwin said.
“This would provide a savings to the county that they could invest in their highest priorities,” Godwin said.
The stable funding source a tax service district provides also serves to leverage more university support, Burt said.
“The university steers resources to where there is the most support,” Burt said. “A stable funding source allows the university to look into the future and keep putting resources into the county.”
Godwin said extension has identified several positions it would seek to fill if the ballot initiative is approved, including a field crops extension agent.
The county lost its lone field crops extension agent this summer when Tom Silberstein took a position in Klamath Falls.
“That is a huge hole, because there are so many acres in field crops in our county and so many people producing them,” Godwin said.
The advisory committee also has identified a need in value-added and direct-marketing agriculture.
“We don’t have anybody helping those folks,” Godwin said.
The committee also hopes to hire staff to facilitate youth development programs, such as 4-H, and to support its healthy-family, healthy-communities initiative, which includes food nutrition and master gardener programs.
Godwin characterized the effort as still in its formative stages.
The group currently is looking to develop committees to steer the effort, including a leadership committee, a campaign committee and an outreach committee to develop a volunteer workforce to, among other activities, collect signatures.
“This is a small budget kind of affair,” he said.
The current plan is to seek a tax rate of 5 cents per $1,000 assessed property, which would generate about $980,000 annually, Godwin said.
“We figured that 5 cents gives us enough to invest in these programs, but will not be a burden for people,” Godwin said.
Under that rate, a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $10 per year.
The key to passing the initiative may be communication, Burt said.
“I think if people understand what it is all about, all the things that are involved, then I think people will be pretty supportive,” Burt said. “Five cents (per $1,000 assessed value) is a pretty small amount, but it goes a long way.”