Combined resources is a necessary change for rural Kansas counties, according to leadership in Stafford County.
Declining budgets and difficulty hiring agents has led to many counties in Kansas consolidating into larger Extension districts under the umbrella of K-State Research and Extension services. Stafford County and Edwards County agents see advantages to a combination between the two counties that would enable them to provide better services to their constituents.
“It’s true, as they say, that most of us are better together or two of something is better than one,” said K-State Research and Extension Agent Stafford County Amy Collins. “The same holds true for rural areas trying to stay relevant, progressive and be resilient in an ever changing world.”
Collins said that K-State Research & Extension, which provides resources and information for many of the county’s 4-H and agricultural based programs, is an extension of Kansas State University.
“Our job is to provide educational information and programs in the areas of agriculture, family and community wellness, 4-H and youth development and community vitality,” she said. “Within those four areas, we break it down into even smaller segments to meet the needs of all people in the county.”
However, not everyone in Stafford County is on board with the proposed districting plans. An unnamed Stafford County tax payer is in the process of circulating a petition that would require the redistricting proposal to be put on the ballot in November for all area residents to vote on.
"We had a constituent come to the county commission meeting to express concern over tax dollars from Stafford County being spent in Edwards County the first year," said Stafford County Commissioner Kurt Fairchild.
If the Stafford County Commission approves the redistricting proposal as presented, instead of waiting to place it on a ballot, $21,800 could be required from Stafford County than Edwards County in the first year of organizing the new combined extension district. After the first year of redistricting, the combined extension service would become its own taxing entity and equalize payments from both counties
"There would be a governing board with four members appointed by each county commission," Fairchild said. "There would be a cap of 2.5 mills, which means that tax dollars could go up or down, but in the long run will result in a savings for everyone, with better services provided for our needs."
Fairchild, a significant tax-payer in Stafford County, said he was in favor of the redistricting plan, as it would be a more efficient use of funds than the current system.
"I compare redistricting to school consolidations in that it would create better opportunities for our people, as well as be a more efficient way of providing those services," he said.
Since 1914, K-State Research & Extension has had a presence in all 105 counties in Kansas, but changes in technology have taken place since then and services required or requested have changed as well.
As of 2019, 55 counties have formed districts or gone through the districting process in order to pool resources and better serve community needs in those areas. The most recent districts have been formed in Southwest Kansas where Stevens, Haskell and Seward counties are now the Wild West district. As of October this year, Finney and Scott counties are in the process of forming an extension district. Many other conversations about districting are happening in other counties across the state, those not in conversation about forming districts could get left as an island of their own.
In Stafford County, extension agents and county commissioners have batted about the idea since 2009.
"We formally started districting talks in 2013 with surrounding counties," Collins said. "For various reasons, these counties ultimately weren’t ready to district or did not have an immediate need to district, and some formed districts with other counties. In 2018, after several years of discussing districting and analyzing options, Stafford County was approached by Edwards County to district. In 2019, both extension boards have laid the groundwork for districting by meeting with board members and extension agents."
Collins said, at that time the local extension board passed a motion to district with Edwards County. From there, Stafford County and Edwards County presented resolutions to their county commissioners to form a district, with both resolutions passing this past October.
Driving the interest in forming a new extension district were three key points. First, the demographics in Kansas are changing. Population is declining in some areas and increasing in others. Collins said this creates a changing economic climates in communities.
"Some counties can afford only one or two agents which leaves a huge burden on those agents to meet a multitude of programming needs for the county’s citizens," she said.
Another key point considered is that effective, high quality specialized programs often require personnel who have specific skills.
"Kansans have indicated a need for more in depth subject matter knowledge from extension agents," Collins said. "This isn’t always possible when an extension agent has to divide time between several extension program areas and thus cannot focus on the more in depth issues. In forming a district, those agents who are stretched thin in their own counties can be much more effective at focusing if they can specialize and collectively serve a broader population."
The third point considered by county leadership is that staffing is a problem. The average county extension council’s budget is financed with approximately 80% from county funds and 20% state and federal funds.
"Many counties face difficulties in providing adequate funding for important programs like extension because of the property tax lid legislation imposed on our county commissioners in 2015," Collins said. "This legislation imposed restrictions on local funding decisions. This is the main reason the commissioners have been in favor of us forming a district, they are no longer able to fund extension like they have in the past. Taxpayer dollars have always funded Extension, it has always been in the general fund."
In fall 2019, an informational meeting was held with extension board and program development committees and 4-H leaders to explain the districting initiative in Stafford County. County commissioners were also invited to this informational meeting. After hearing no opposition, at the next extension council meeting the extension board moved to form a district with Edwards County.
October 2019, the Extension Boards in both Stafford and Edwards counties presented resolutions to the county commissioners. Both resolutions passed in favor of forming a district.
After the resolutions were posted in the official county newspaper, a 60-day waiting period began. Petitions for signatures in opposition to the proposal must be submitted within the 60-day waiting period which ends December 30, 2019.
"What we want the community to know is that our board has spent years and many, many hours discussing the future of extension, it has not been a knee-jerk decision, and it’s one the board has taken very seriously because they understand the impact and importance of such a decision," Collins said. "It has been reported that some felt blindsided by this decision and that is just simply not accurate. If we continue to do business as status quo, our extension program will struggle. We feel districting can, and will, breathe new life into our extension program and allow for impactful learning opportunities for everyone. It’s a forward thinking process that will ensure we are sustainable, relevant and more available to our communities in the future."
Stafford county extension agents Amy Collins firstname.lastname@example.org and Amanda Staub email@example.com are available for conversation and questions about the redistricting proposal. The phone number to the extension office is 620-549-3502. Current board members are Michelle Huston, Jon McClure, Jill Stimatze, Troy Wright, John Hildebrand, Lory Willinger, Debbie Suiter, Andrew Vosburgh and David Rice.