University of Wisconsin-Extension officials want to absorb Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts by reducing the number of agents and researchers helping people with everything from growing crops to family finances.
The Extension is a University of Wisconsin System division designed to apply UW research and expertise across the state. Its responsibilities include providing online degrees, running public broadcasting and working with people on the local level on agricultural, parenting and economic development issues through offices in all 72 counties.
Extension Provost Aaron Brower said that the 700-person Cooperative Extension, the branch that assists people with local issues, could shed up to 80 positions. He estimated as many as half of those positions are already vacant.
The two-year state budget Walker signed in July cut the UW System by $250 million. The cut means a $3.6 million annual loss for Cooperative Extension.
Extension officials are trying to get through the first year of the budget by holding vacant positions open and turning to their surpluses, but say that's a stop-gap approach. They've presented a draft plan to Chancellor Cathy Sandeen to deal with the cuts going forward. The outline could change the face of Extension, resulting in fewer researchers to advise farmers and help them deal with emerging threats to their crops and fewer educators covering larger swaths of the state.
The vaguely worded document recommends saving $1.2 million annually by combining services into four-county quadrants and potentially sharing educators that help farmers, families and local economic development efforts. Right now, each county has four educators.
It also recommends saving another $2.4 million per year by "strategically reducing" the number of researchers who help farmers deal with emerging threats to their crops and making more extensive use of digital technology.
Sandeen is expected to sign off on the recommendations within the next few weeks. Extension officials and stakeholders plan to spend most of the spring refining the recommendations and implement them by July, when the 2017 state fiscal year begins.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Association of Professional Nutrient Applicators, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association and the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association have all come out against the plan to cut researchers, saying in a joint letter to Sandeen last week that Extension needs to fill and retain researcher positions ahead of other positions.
"We have more questions than answers at this point," said Karen Gefvert, the farm bureau's government relations director. "Our big concern is agriculture needs to have those researcher positions filled in order for farmers to get answers they need."
Voicemail messages left with the Wisconsin Counties Association weren't immediately returned Friday.
Brower acknowledged that the plan is vague but people need to prepare themselves for change.
"We're doing the best we can given the resources we have," Brower said. "A lot of people are now realizing the implications of the state budget cuts."