Local MSU Extension Saved from Closing

Tense week ends as Granholm signs budget bill

Programs of the Michigan State University Extension in Washtenaw County – including 4-H and consumer counseling – were running without interruption this week, while staff was quietly preparing for another potential task: Closing down their operation completely.

At Wednesday’s administrative briefing of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, county administrator Bob Guenzel said that staff had been making preparations to close in light of possible cuts by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who had indicated she might veto MSU Extension funding in a budget bill passed by state legislators.

But on Friday morning, Granholm signed the budget – and spared MSU Extension funding.

“It’s been an interesting week,” Nancy Thelen, director of the Washtenaw MSU Extension, told The Chronicle Friday morning in a phone interview.

Funding Sources: A Complex Mix

The local extension receives funding from several sources, including Washtenaw County. For the proposed 2010 budget, the county has allocated $639,155 for Washtenaw’s MSU Extension. Every dollar of county funding, Thelen said, leverages another $1.89 from MSU, federal sources and grants. “We’re such an intertwined web,” she said, further describing the funding sources as legs on a stool. “Pull out one of those legs, and you’re gone.”

Twelve of the 18 people on staff locally are MSU employees, while six are employed by the county, primarily in office support positions. However, a portion of the salaries and benefits for MSU employees is paid for by the county.

Though state-level cuts threatened to close the entire program this week, local funding has also been in question in recent months, as the county struggled to deal with a projected $30 million deficit over the next two years. At one point, the county had considered cutting its extension funding completely.

At several meetings of the county’s Board of Commissioners earlier this year, residents who’ve used the MSU Extension programs turned up to speak in support of continued county funding. [See Chronicle coverage: "4-H Fans, Others Lobby County for Funds"] In 2008, about 70,000 county residents used the extension’s programs and services, Thelen said. Programs include 4-H, master gardening, foreclosure prevention counseling, support to local farmers, and educational programs related to food, nutrition, youth and families.

The proposed county budget – which commissioners are expected to vote on in November – maintains funding for the extension. However, like other agencies and nonprofits that receive county funding, the MSU Extension will see a 20% drop in general fund support in 2010, from $813,402 this year. Thelen said they’ll eliminate one job that’s currently vacant – a community development educator – as well as one temporary employee.

The county also plans to shift the extension’s funding source from the general fund to a new millage – though commissioners haven’t yet approved it. Known as Act 88, the millage does not require voter approval and would raise about $600,000 annually for economic development and agricultural-related programs. Of that, MSU Extension programs would receive about $100,000. [See Chronicle coverage: "Board Tables Economic Development Tax"]

Meanwhile, the local extension won’t be affected by cuts at the state level at this point. Funding for the overall MSU Extension program was cut by 44% in the budget bill signed by Granholm, but those cuts will be offset by federal stimulus funding, according to Laura Probyn, a spokesperson for the statewide extension program.


  1. By Vivienne Armentrout
    October 31, 2009 at 9:15 am | permalink

    Oh, that feeling of the axe swishing by over the head! This would have been a terrible time to eliminate MSU Extension. Quite aside from the 4H program, it is crucial to the survival and improvement of Michigan agriculture. We are lucky to live in a state where “local food” is actually possible. It is important to retain the technical expertise and governmental infrastructure to regulate and inform this crucial Michigan industry as we move into a time of likely scarcity because of energy costs in importing food.

  2. October 31, 2009 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    I’m a Master Gardener through our county Extension office, and worked numerous days this summer on the Gardening Hotline at the Zeeb Road Extension office.

    On one afternoon alone, I overhead the following phone conversations held by Extension employees:
    -Counseling and supporting a person about to be foreclosed;
    -Advocating for such an individual with a financial institution;
    -Coaching a new mother regarding how to breastfeed her child;
    -Guiding another new mother through expectations about newborn behavior;
    -Making arrangements for 4-H club activity prior to the Fair;
    -Answering detailed technical questions from a local farmer about crop management; and
    -Scheduling the next food safety class for restaurant employees to be held at the Extension office.

    If the Extension services in our county went away, I can say with assurance that the loss would touch each and every one of our lives. Extension employees provide our infrastructure…often without notice, usually without recognition. Their services are worth every penny our county or state can provide.