Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE - State legislators, municipal officials, local entrepreneurs and concerned citizens are scrambling to find emergency funds to avoid shutting down the Valencia County office of New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
The Valencia County Commission voted in December to cut off all funding for Extension, thrusting the local office into a financial tailspin that could lead to the first closure of a county Extension office in New Mexico since the program was started in 1915.
"It's very important that the Extension program be available to all citizens in the state," said Billy Dictson, Extension director and associate dean of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "We want to work with all public officials and private citizens in Valencia County to secure local funding to match the state and federal resources available for that county, and we very much appreciate the varied efforts being made to resolve the budget shortfall."
Last June, the County Commission approved $62,800 for Extension for fiscal year 2001-2002, but in December, commissioners voted to immediately suspend funding for 18 months, including $37,000 remaining in the current fiscal year.
By cutting local funding, the county actually risks losing another $125,600 in annual state and federal funds for local Extension programs, because county contributions are matched dollar for dollar by state and federal partners. In addition, about $89,600 per year in grants for Extension programs could be lost, including about $57,000 for nutrition and diabetes education for low-income families.
"Given the county's revenue shortfalls, we expected some cutbacks, but the commission's decision to completely eliminate the Extension budget came as a total surprise to us and to the clients who participate in our programs," said Frank Holguin, program director and agricultural agent with the Valencia County Extension office. "At this point we only have enough funds to continue operating through the end of February."
The cutoff generated sharp criticism from Extension clients, particularly members of the county 4-H youth program. About 400 young people and 175 volunteer adult leaders are enrolled in 19 county 4-H clubs, making the program one of the state's largest. Another 1,780 youth have benefited in the past year from local 4-H school enrichment programs, agricultural workshops and after-school and summer education.
As a result, public officials and private citizens are urgently seeking alternative funding, including an initiative in the state Legislature sponsored by Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-Valencia) to provide $37,000 in emergency funds to keep the Extension office open until June. Sanchez is a member of the Senate Finance Committee. Two House representatives, Kandy Cordova (D-Valencia) and Fred Luna (D-Valencia), both support the initiative.
"We are very grateful for the efforts of Sen. Sanchez and our House representatives to help us get through the year," Holguin said. "If it passes, the initiative will buy us another six months, but this is only a stopgap measure. We've still got to find about $64,000 for the next fiscal year."
The mayors from Valencia County's three municipalities--Los Lunas, Belen and Bosque Farms--have all agreed to allow Extension to submit requests for municipal funding for next fiscal year, Holguin said.
The Extension office will submit three separate proposals during budget hearings in the municipalities in April. Holguin will also ask the County Commission to reinstate some cutoff funds, potentially allowing the municipal and county governments to share the budget burden, at least for the next 12 months. But again, even if they are approved, the proposals offer only a stopgap solution.
"We're only going to the municipalities because it's an emergency situation for 2002-2003," Holguin said. "We don't expect to go back to them the following year. We still need to resolve the long-term situation."
One long-term possibility is approval of a new mill levy in Valencia County that would provide funds for Extension over several years, something Extension officials are now discussing with the board of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, Holguin said.
Meanwhile, private entrepreneurs and local citizens are also stepping up to the plate to help Extension get through the next 18 months.
Los Lunas-based businessman Ed Tinsley, who owns the K-Bobs Steakhouse restaurant chain, is donating $1,000 to the Extension office and has made a public appeal for more businesses to do the same. Tinsley is also dedicating the Jan. 30 inauguration of the newly remodeled K-Bobs Steakhouse restaurant in Los Lunas to Extension. Participants will pay a $5.00 cover charge to attend the inauguration--which will include refreshments, live entertainment, dancing and a raffle--with all proceeds donated to Extension.
The Valencia County Farm and Livestock Bureau will hold a public auction to benefit Extension on Feb. 23 at the county fairgrounds in Belen. The Bureau is accepting in-kind donations, including livestock, feed, tools and trinkets capable of drawing bids.
For more information, call Holguin at (505) 865-9561.
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