By Greg Bird
In a bid to possibly save their future existence and keep the local office operating, the McCreary County Extension Board met Monday evening to discuss the possibility of the Fiscal Court moving to disband the group and strip away their taxing authority.
Just days ahead of the January Fiscal Court meeting where the first reading of an ordinance to disband the group is expected to be passed, the Extension Board looked at a “worst-case scenario” of the Board’s abolishment. They discussed the possibility of a compromise being reached that would allow the Board to remain in place with a promised lower tax rate next year.
Extension Agent Greg Whitis, who is not a voting member of the Board, informed the group that in order for the Fiscal Court to abolish the Board it would have to draft a new ordinance ordering the dissolution. That ordinance would require two readings to take effect, but between the first and second reading the Court would also be required to hold a public hearing and present a plan on how to provide Extension service to the public in the future.
Whitis said he was unsure of the future of the Extension Service if the dissolution vote passes, but he referenced a letter sent to him by Dr. Jeffery Young, the Director of County Operations for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service discussing the possibility of reverting to prior funding levels.
Dr. Young notes the UK Extension Service is facing serious state and federal funding issues of its own, and would likely not be able to provide funding to support the McCreary County Office if the local funding was cut.
Young also hinted that if the responsibility of funding the local service went back to the Fiscal Court, and that funding level reverted to what if had been in years prior, there was a distinct possibility that UK would close the local office.
“Given our current financial circumstances and the potential for further state cuts, it is unclear if the office would be able to remain open at past funding levels,” Young stated in the letter.
Whitis stated copies of the letter were given to all members of the Fiscal Court prior to last month’s meeting.
Magistrate Roger Phillips stated last month the Fiscal Court had no intention of shutting the service, but pledged to revert funding for the local office back to the General Fund budget at a rate comparable to what had been allocated in 2015-16 – about $48,000.
Whitis said Monday night that he didn’t see a way to continue operating the Extension Service at that level of funding.
He stated all Extension Districts are facing an assessment from the University of Kentucky in the coming year as the University is dealing with funding losses as well and would pass that deficit on to local districts. While uncertain of what amount the McCreary County office would be required to pay in the event of the assessment, but estimated it could be more than $40,000, which would eat up most of the budget proposed by the Fiscal Court.
As a means to seek a possible compromise with the Fiscal Court, Whitis put together a rough draft of a possible budget for the Extension Service next year that would result in a lower tax rate.
The draft budget removes funding for a third extension agent and reduces line items such as travel and other expenses. There are several items in the budget, such as rent, support staff benefits and program support that could not be changed.
The new proposal budget, still stands as a marked increase from the one put forth by the Fiscal Court. Whitis’ estimate that the minimum amount needed to operate the local office would be about $120,000.
To meet that budget total, the Extension Board would have to ask for a tax rate of 2.5 cents per $100 of value, which would be a reduction of about 1.4 cents from the current rate of 3.95 cents.
Judge Executive Doug Stephens was present for the Board meeting and stated he did not know how the Fiscal Court would react to a possible compromise.
The tax passed by the Board last year increased the Extension Service budget by nearly four times, increasing from about $48,000 per year to nearly $200,000. The reasoning behind the large increase was cited as being needed to improve office equipment, fund travel and training for staff, and to fund a full-time 4-H agent at the suggestion of the University of Kentucky Extension Service.
The Board voted to impose a tax of 3.95 cent per $100 of assessed value on property and vehicle last February, but the tax was not public knowledge until September, leading to serious discontent from citizens upset at paying an additional tax.
McCreary County PVA Bruce Lominac obtained an injunction, temporarily blocking the implementation of the tax, in an effort to allow the Fiscal Court to dissolve the Extension Board and remove their special taxing district status.
The Fiscal Court took no action at that time under the belief that they had no authority to dissolve the Board at that juncture.
It was in November when Magistrate Roger Phillips declared he had learned that the Fiscal Court did indeed have the power to do so and pledged to take action to abolish the Board and began proceedings last month.
A first reading of an ordinance abolishing the Board is expected to be presented tonight at the January Fiscal Court meeting. To pass, the ordinance must survive two readings and a public hearing, before it is put in to effect. If the ordinance does pass, presumably some time in February the Board would be officially disbanded but the tax imposed for this year would remain in place, as it has already been collected.
But, for the next budget cycle (and presumably beyond), there would be no Extension District tax and the Fiscal Court’s General Fund would resume responsibility of funding the Extension Service.