Officials from Ellis and Barton counties met Monday morning to discuss the possibility of a consolidated Kansas State University Research & Extension district.
The meeting, which was in Great Bend, was attended by the Ellis County Commission, Barton County Commission and representatives from both current Extension districts.
It was an opportunity for both sides to address any questions and concerns regarding a possible merger. Officials from both counties spoke in favor of pursuing the possibility.
“It makes sense for us to partner with Ellis County because we would become literally a powerhouse in the state as far as Extension is concerned,” said Alicia Straub, a Barton County commissioner. “And if we don’t, I fear that both of us will fall by the wayside.”
Both commissions will continue to discuss the details, and there will be public hearings if the process moves forward. If the combined district is approved, it would not be effective until 2018.
Expanding to an Extension district has been on Ellis County’s radar for some time. There were discussions about consolidating with Russell County approximately 10 years ago, said Ramie Wasinger, a member of the Ellis County Extension’s executive board. That did not go through because officials at the time believed Ellis and Russell counties were too different, he said.
“Taking a look at the numbers, it’s more advantageous for us to go ahead and district with a county that has a similar-size population base and a similar-size valuation base so the disparities are not too great,” Wasinger said.
Many Kansas counties — both in rural and urban areas — already are partnering with others to form larger districts. After hearing from other commissioners and Extension officials across the state, it appears districting will be the future of the program one way or another, said Ellis County Commissioner Marcy McClelland.
“We’ve got to think about that because they are going to district the Extension (program),” she said. “We would rather partner with someone we want to partner with instead of who they tell us we’re going to partner with.”
Changes and reductions could be coming to the program across the state, partly due to recent cuts the Kansas government has imposed on higher education.
Ellis County is home to four Extension agents, while Barton County has three. Ideally, districting would allow those employees to specialize more in their particular services and reduce the amount of repetition while serving a larger geographic area, Wasinger said.
Currently, both of the county Extension programs receive three-fourths of a mill during the budget process. The two programs combined were allocated a total of $480,000 for the current fiscal year, but it’s too early to determine what a total budget might be if the two consolidate.
Forming a district would mean the Extension program would become its own taxing entity, meaning county government could lose control of the organization’s mill levy. Several in attendance noted both Extension districts are known for being frugal, but discussed precautions that could be taken to prevent increased taxation.
Straub said recent state legislation placing a limit on the amount of annual mill levy increases for public entities likely would apply to the district.
The counties also would have the option of governing what the mill levy will be if they choose to form a consolidated district, Barton County Administrator Richard Boeckman said, asking if Ellis County would be willing to consider that. Ellis County Commissioners Dean Haselhorst, Barbara Wasinger and McClelland all indicated they were open to the possibility.
“As a taxpayer, which we all are in this room, we don’t want to just hand the reigns over to anybody and say you can do whatever you want to do,” Haselhorst said. “I think we all want to control it, as commissioners, as county administrators, as taxpayers. ... We’re paying taxes just like everybody else is.”