MSU Extension Changes in the Works

Also, county board briefed on joining regional energy office

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners working session (March 4, 2010): Budget challenges at Michigan State University are prompting major changes in the MSU Extension program statewide, though many unanswered questions remain about how the changes will impact Washtenaw County.

Nancy Thalen

At left: Nancy Thelen, director of the Washtenaw County MSU Extension program, talks with county commissioner Leah Gunn after the board of commissioners' March 4 working session. (Photo by the writer.)

Nancy Thelen, the long-time director of the Washtenaw County MSU Extension program, gave commissioners an update on the changes at their March 4 working session. One major change is that the county director positions are being eliminated, to be replaced by district coordinators who’ll be responsible for multiple counties.

Several commissioners expressed strong support for Thelen and her staff, but said they weren’t pleased about what’s happening. Said Wes Prater: “Quite frankly, I’m not sold on what’s being done.”

Also at Thursday’s session, commissioners were briefed about plans for the county to join the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office – they’ll be asked to vote on this move at an upcoming meeting.

And Verna McDaniel, who’ll be replacing county administrator Bob Guenzel when he retires in May, gave an update on planning initiatives, focusing on ways that the county is preparing to respond to external trends like the depressed economy.

MSU Extension Restructures

Last year, the Washtenaw MSU Extension, which offers services ranging from 4-H to financial counseling, faced budget cuts both locally and from the state. As Washtenaw County worked to address a potential $30 million deficit, funding for the extension was among the programs on the table. Residents turned out at county board meetings during the summer, voicing their support for the extension’s services. [See Chronicle coverage: "4-H Fans, Others Lobby County for Funds"]

Ultimately, the board did cut funding for the extension in the 2010 and 2011 budget – along with a range of other programs. For 2010, the county has budgeted $639,155 for the extension, down from $697,256 last year. At their Nov. 4, 2009 meeting, commissioners also approved a millage, known as Act 88, that would raise $603,000 annually for economic development and agricultural-related purposes. A portion of those funds – $60,000 – were earmarked for the extension.

Separately, in October 2009, Gov. Granholm had signaled she might cut funds for the entire MSU Extension program – local operations throughout the state, including the Washtenaw office, were making plans to close. Granholm did not act on that threat when she signed the budget in late October. [See Chronicle coverage: "Local MSU Extension Saved from Closing"]

Meanwhile, MSU has been struggling with its own budget challenges. Last year, the university’s president, Lou Anna Simon, directed MSU’s colleges and departments to cut their budgets by 20% over the next four years. The MSU Extension was given five years to complete that task, Thelen told commissioners on Thursday. [This week, an article in the Detroit News outlined MSU's budget cuts, calling it "one of the biggest contractions in academic programs in the college's 154-year history."]

In her presentation to commissioners, Thelen said Simon believed the extension was  administratively too top-heavy – the reorganization aims to address that. Most of the changes are designed to deliver programs more efficiently, Thelen said, with the expectation that cost savings will follow. No jobs are being cut, she said.

Under the restructuring, the state is being divided into 13 districts. Washtenaw will become part of a six-county district that includes Livingston, Jackson, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties. Each district will have a coordinator, who will become the point-person for the extension. “You’ll see a different face here,” said Thelen, who has served as Washtenaw County’s extension director since 1989. Those district coordinators haven’t yet been selected.

The restructuring calls for forming four major statewide program areas:

  • “Greening Michigan”: A catch-all category that includes forestry, land use, financial services, community development, and farm-to-consumer programs, among others.
  • Agriculture and agribusiness
  • Children and youth, which includes the 4-H programs.
  • Health and nutrition

Current staff, including Thelen, have been asked to identify the program areas in which they’d like to serve. She’s chosen children and youth, but said it’s still unclear how those will be assigned. The intent is to focus staff on developing expertise in specific areas, and to provide that expertise to communities within the new districts, rather than within one county. These “multi-county educators” will report to the district coordinator.

Thelen said she nominated Verna McDaniel, who’ll be the next Washtenaw County administrator, to be on the transition team for this district. Details of that transition are still being worked out, Thelen said: “You’ll never hear me say ‘I don’t know’ as much as I’ll say it tonight.”

Within the next few months, the extension will be asking each county to sign a memorandum of understanding – or some type of agreement – laying out a commitment of financial support. A proposal hasn’t yet been determined, Thelen said, but it might be a flat fee based on county metrics, like population size or property tax revenues. The hope is to have those agreements in place by July 1, 2010 – though it might take longer to actually implement whatever changes are in the agreement, she said.

MSU Extension: Commissioner Comments, Questions

Leah Gunn said Thelen was putting a brave face on a situation that “sucked.” Gunn was concerned that local residents would lose the personal connections they’d had with the extension’s staff, and the continuity of programming. Thelen said she believes the district coordinators will put an emphasis on building personal relationships, too.

Several commissioners were concerned about how resources would be allocated among the six counties in the district. Saying the situation seemed to be like a slowly evolving “train wreck,” Jeff Irwin asked what level of financial support other counties were currently providing. Thelen said she wasn’t sure, but that Livingston County probably provided the least amount of support among the six. It’s not clear how resources will be allocated, she said.

Irwin said he wouldn’t support paying for services that would be delivered in other counties. He was fearful that this concern would also prompt other counties to reevaluate their financial commitment to the MSU extension. Another issue was the way in which counties might be asked to pay, based on population or property tax revenues. In either case, it seemed that urban counties would be bearing more responsibility than rural counties, he said.

Jessica Ping asked whether other counties supported the extension with a millage, as Washtenaw County does. Not in the district that Washtenaw will be part of, Thelen answered.

Ping noted that Washtenaw County has made the extension a priority, while other counties haven’t. She didn’t want that priority to get diluted when the county joins a larger district.

Several commissioners thanked Thelen and her staff, and sympathized with the difficult transition. Thelen promised she’d bring the board more updates as soon as she learned more about the changes that would be occurring.

Energy Efficiency Grant

Earlier in the meeting, Brett Lenart – with the county’s new office of energy and economic development – gave an update on plans to join the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. It’s one piece of a strategy to implement programs and services that are funded by a $766,900 three-year Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Commissioners will be asked to approve membership in the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office at a meeting later this month.

Lenart briefly outlined five primary projects that the grant will fund: 1) $242,500 to retrofit county facilities and upgrade energy efficiency, 2) $275,000 to seed a revolving loan fund, 3) $115,000 to create a solar energy demonstration project, 4) $57,710 for staff to develop energy policies for the county, and 5) $76,690 to join the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office, which will provide technical assistance for the other projects. [More details on these projects were provided in a previous presentation by Lenart at the board's Nov. 19, 2009 working session.]

On Thursday, Lenart focused on the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. The office is a partnership of the WARM Training CenterMichigan Municipal League, SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. [County commissioner Conan Smith is executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. At the board's March 3 meeting, he addressed some conflict-of-interest concerns related to this project.]

The regional office would provide a range of services for the county, Lenart said. Those include helping collect and analyze data to track the county’s energy use, benchmarking with other communities, identifying other grant opportunities, identifying potential vendors and evaluating bids for the solar energy demonstration project and the county facility retrofits, among other things.

The next steps for the board of commissioners are to vote on a resolution to execute a participation agreement, Lenart said. This would also entail appointing a representative and an alternate to the board of the regional energy office.

Also attending Thursday’s working session was Jacob Corvidae of the Detroit-based WARM Training Center, on of the partners in the regional office. He spoke briefly, telling commissioners that they’ve already hired 3.5 full-time equivalent positions for the regional office and are hiring more. The partners have secured more than $3.5 million for the regional office, he said, which will be used for direct services as well as to build an endowment intended to provide a sustainable funding source in the future.

Energy Grant: Commissioner Comments and Questions

Jeff Irwin said he supported the move, noting that intergovernmental collaboration is one of the county’s guiding principles.

Jessica Ping asked where the office would be physically located. Jacob Corvidae of the WARM Training Center said that staff would work out of the partners’ offices – WARM and SEMCOG in Detroit, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in Ferndale, and the Michigan Municipal League in Ann Arbor.

Ping also wanted to know how many other counties had already joined. Corvidae told Ping that 15-16 partners had signed up, but no other counties so far. Organizers are talking with officials in Macomb and Oakland counties about the possibility of joining, he said.

Rolland Sizemore Jr. asked how the board would know if the regional office was doing a good job. The last project like this, he noted, the county hadn’t tracked results very well. He was alluding to the Chevron Energy Performance Project. Later in the meeting, Wes Prater echoed Sizemore’s sentiments, and asked the county administration to provide an update on whether the Chevron project achieved the energy savings they had anticipated.

Ping asked about the county’s current solar energy project, and wondered whether data from that effort would be wrapped into reports about the new solar energy demonstration project. “We’ll make sure all that data gets to you,” Lenart said.

Lenart told commissioners that in developing the county’s energy policy, as part of this grant, they’d be setting realistic goals and tracking their performance, with regular reports to the board.

Update on Major County Initiatives

At the end of Thursday’s working session, Verna McDaniel gave the board an update on planning initiatives underway. McDaniel – who’s now deputy county administrator and is being hired to replace retiring county administrator Bob Guenzel in mid-May – focused her report on external trends. She told commissioners that the administration’s planning team will be developing white papers in five areas, to help them analyze the trends and plan strategies to mitigate their impact.

From McDaniel’s report, the external trends to be analyzed include:

  • Ongoing economic challenges, including depressed property values, stagnant job growth and a declining population. The ability of local governments to sell municipal bonds might be affected by these factors, which could also increase the cost of capital. The economy could also affect the ability to raise revenue through new millages, or could impact the ability to renew existing millages, given voter sentiment.
  • Increasing human service needs. A greater demand for these kinds of services could make it difficult for local governments to adequately respond.
  • State and local government restructuring. Economic strains statewide are driving support for a new state constitution to address issues like the need for a new tax structure, the viability of the township government model, reform of school financing and districting, and other issues that could dramatically reshape county government.
  • Increased emphasis on accountability, transparency and direct participation, in response to citizen demands for greater openness.
  • Emerging strategies: Collaboration and consolidation, increased use of technology, alternative approaches to delivering services, and funding consolidation.

McDaniel said she’d be returning to the board with updates in the coming months.