Extension Service reduces budget, lays off employees

by Brad Ellingson

Mary Jenkins, a University Extension Service educator, has taught food safety classes in Kittson County for 33 years. She will accept an early retirement package Thursday, an act that could save others in the department from layoffs.

In an effort to cut $4.5 million by 2004, Extension Service plans to reduce its staff by up to 60 people, leaving many employees confused and uncertain about the future.

“I love my job,” Jenkins said. “But I also made a choice to retire.”

For the last 45 days, Extension Service has offered employees eligible for retirement after June 30 an early retirement package. The number of accepting employees will determine attrition.

Today marks the last day that employees can accept Extension Service’s early retirement plan.

Jeanne Markell, assistant dean and director of Extension Service, said administration will decide next week who to lay off and who to reassign.

Extension Service officials have been traveling around the state over the past few weeks to meet with people in all seven districts of Minnesota and get input from employees.

Charles Casey, Extension Service dean, said the department plans to utilize more technology in response to increasing numbers of people accessing its Web site.

“It’s not that the University is reducing the dollars it puts into Extension, it’s just going to be using them in a different way,” Casey said. “If we make no changes we’ll just slowly decline over the next three or four years.”

However, some state legislators believe rural Minnesota residents might not benefit from the increased technology.

“Half of the people in rural Minnesota don’t even have access to a computer, much less dependable internet access,” said Rep. Robert Ness, R-Dassel, chairman of the Agricultural and Rural Development Finance Committee.

Ness said he has received many e-mails and phone calls expressing concern about the proposed cuts for Extension Service.

“We in the agriculture committee are extremely concerned about the cutting of Extension Services to the farmer producers and our youth,” Ness said.

Other policy makers feel Extension Service has taken on too many responsibilities and has forgotten about agriculture.

“There is a lot of criticism from a lot of legislators that say the University of Minnesota has been dealing with things they shouldn’t be dealing with,” Peterson said.

“The problem with all these cuts and this budget cycle is that it just means continued double-digit increases for tuition for kids at the University of Minnesota,” he said.

However, Casey said the Extension Service program is addressing the changes optimistically so that its services can continue to bolster greater Minnesota.

The cuts will allow for more flexibility within the program, he said.

Meanwhile, Jenkins and other employees eligible for retirement have less than 24 hours to decide their futures.

Jenkins said no one forced her to retire, but she said she feels others eligible for retirement might have a more difficult time deciding.

“I think there is a lot of unknowns,” she said. “What does the final impact mean? I don’t know if we know that yet.”