It’s something local Kansas State University Research and Extension officials have been working on since 2015.
As of July 1, the Cottonwood District finally became a reality. The new district combines Extension programs and councils in Ellis and Barton counties.
Residents who participate in programs such as 4-H or receive services from Extension likely won’t notice much change right away, however.
“There won’t be a big change, other than hearing ‘Cottonwood District’ when they call down (to our office),” said Ramie Wasinger, a member of the district’s governing board who has been involved in the planning process. “It should be a smooth transition. People won’t see any big changes whatsoever with regards to operations or the people they’re dealing with.”
Extension will maintain a presence in both Ellis and Barton counties and be located in the same offices.
Behind the scenes, organizers are working on housekeeping details, such as merging finances and making plans for next year’s budget.
One of the most significant changes relates to how the program is funded. Rather than being included in the county government’s budget, the Extension district now has the authority to set its own mill levy. County commissioners, however, still will have some oversight and “veto power,” Wasinger said.
The other noticeable change is the composition of the district’s governing board, which now consists of four representatives from each county. Those positions will be filled by public elections in the future.
The district will maintain a staff of seven agents, and eventually there will be more interchange and specialized services. While both counties will have an agriculture agent, for example, one agent might specialize in soil and crops while another works more closely with livestock.
“It’s to give more programming, more bang for the buck — which is what we’re looking for all the time,” he said. “As technology increases and people have (instant) access and want information now … we’ll be able to accommodate more programming that the people are actually looking to obtain.”
There already has been some intermingling between Ellis and Barton county agents, as they have been helping each other with one of the biggest Extension events of the year — the county fair.
Barton County’s fair was earlier this month, and Ellis County’s annual event wraps up today. Several Barton County agents could be spotted on the fairgrounds last week, including Donna Krug, who led a group of children through a storybook walk then helped judge a food contest.
The Barton County-based family and consumer sciences agent also will serve as district director, and said she is ready for that challenge. She said she hopes consumers will be patient through the transition, however, as the final details are being ironed out.
“We want to really be known as Cottonwood District, not as Ellis County and Barton County. We do feel like we have a lot of things similar … and definitely I’m excited about what the agents will bring,” she said. “Already our 4-H agents are collaborating. … We’ll do leadership camps together and really give our kids more opportunity. All the way around, it will be good.”
Many other Kansas counties already have merged to create Extension districts. The Cottonwood District is the 17th to do so, according to information from the K-State Research and Extension website.
“It’s the wave of the future because it’s sustainable funding, and that’s what we’re needing right now,” Krug said.
Although the possibility of forming a combined district had been in the works for so long, it almost didn’t happen this year. Final approval was needed from the state attorney general’s office after both county commissions signed off on the partnership.
That approval didn’t come until June 16, giving officials only two weeks to ensure the new district was operational before the strict July 1 deadline.
If that had not been met, the district would have been pushed off a full year, and both counties would have had to make a last-minute funding request from their respective county governments.
“That left us with about two weeks. That’s not a lot of time,” Wasinger said. “We would have preferred to have 90, 120 days to get ready for something of this magnitude.”
But they were able to make it work, and officials say they are glad the long-awaited change has been made.
The Ellis County Commission and county officials had been working with Extension on the merger for at least the last year, and are looking forward to more specialized services in the future, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.
“This wasn’t set up for cost savings. It was set up to try and make sure that both counties had the advantage of services of all seven Extension agents,” Smith-Hanes said.