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Extension Service funding still depends on citizens' vote in May

In an editorial on Dec. 13, the Mail Tribune expressed pleasure that Jackson County will restore funding to county services that had been cut last spring. Comparing Jackson to other rural counties, the Mail Tribune editors point out that Jackson County residents have "reasons to be thankful to their county leaders' fiscal management."

We are truly thankful that the county has reduced expenses and found revenues to continue to fund libraries, veterans' services and the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (SOREC) — also known as Extension — for another six months. This and other news coverage, however, gives the mistaken impression that future funding for the OSU Extension Service has been secured.

Unfortunately, county budget problems will continue to threaten these services in years to come unless new funding sources are found. In fact, the commissioners were clear that SOREC needed to find another revenue source outside the county's general fund.

The Commissioners have agreed to put an Extension Service District measure on the ballot in May, asking Jackson County residents to vote to support the Extension through a property tax levy of up to 5 cents per $1,000 property valuation. This amounts to an average of $7 a year for homeowners in Jackson County, and would provide a sustainable and stable source of revenue long into the future.The maximum assessment of 5 cents per $1,000 cannot be increased and the money raised for the Extension Service District may not be used for any other purpose.

SOREC has served Jackson County for more than 100 years. By federal law, an extension service can exist only in counties where it has "substantial county support." Without that county support, Extension must close.

SOREC is already funded from a variety of sources. For every dollar that Jackson County contributes, Extension brings an additional $8.48 in contracts, fees, grants and state and federal funding to our local economy.

Many people may not know that the Extension Service, which was founded to support agricultural interests, now provides much broader services that benefit our economy.

Research Center entomologists, soil scientists and hydrologists provide critical information to orchardists, wine-grape growers and small farmers, supporting a multimillion dollar agricultural economy in Jackson County. In addition, the Master Gardener program has trained thousands of rural and urban horticulturalists with science-based knowledge in growing backyard vegetables, fruits and ornamentals.

Master Gardeners run the Plant Clinics that answer gardeners' questions, provide advice to community gardens throughout the county and put on the Spring Garden Fair, a much-anticipated event each May at the Expo. Also under the Extension Service, 4-H programs serve urban and rural families alike. 4-H helps youth develop skills in areas such as animal husbandry, computer technology, leadership, community service and personal and project-specific budgeting.

This is only a partial list of the activities and skills that make 4-Hers responsible young people who already contribute to our community and are poised to become our future leaders.

The Land Steward program helps rural landowners learn about, restore, preserve and care for their properties. Small Woodlands programs provide expertise to private, non-industrial woodland owners (the best-managed forest lands in the state, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute report of 2012), who deliver logs to local mills. Other programs, such as Master Food Preservers, Strong Women, and Farm to School provide high quality nutrition and health benefits to their participants.

Each of these Extension programs delivers thousands of volunteer hours to the community, helping the residents of Jackson County from youths to older adults and supporting the natural resources that make our county such a desirable place to live.

The county commissioners will hold two public hearings during their weekly agenda meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 8, and Wednesday, Jan. 29, before putting the service district on the ballot. We encourage the citizens of Jackson County to learn all they can about the services and benefits of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. It is important for all of us to extend this century of service that provides jobs, supports agriculture and enhances our Jackson County lifestyle.

Six more months of funding is welcome, but does not solve the larger problem. The solution is in the hands of the people of Jackson County.

Sherri Morgan is president of the Jackson County Master Gardeners and a board member of Friends of Research and Extension (FORE).