La Crosse County’s Cooperative Extension office might soon be back to full strength after many months of being shorthanded, but it took a bold and unusual move on the part of La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley to make that happen.

Steve O'Malley mug

O’Malley

Two positions in La Crosse County’s Extension office have been vacant because of a state hiring freeze while the UW-Extension system has been in reorganizational limbo for a couple years. The county has been without an agricultural education agent for 29 months, while the 4-H agent position has been vacant for 23 of the past 36 months.

Those two agents and two others in La Crosse County personnel (family living educator Mary Meehan-Strub and community resources agent Karl Green) are paid for jointly by the county and the state, with the state having final say in hiring decisions.

Part of UW-Extension’s “nEXT Generation” plan originally called for forcing counties to share their agents with other counties in their “cluster.” Under that plan, La Crosse County was grouped with Monroe, Vernon, Richland and Crawford counties.

O’Malley and other county officials were among the most vocal opponents of that sharing arrangement, and the unfilled positions only made matters worse. “It’s been more than mildly frustrating,” O’Malley said.

So in an effort to ensure La Crosse County gets the full services of the county ag and 4-H agents, and to expedite the filling of those vacancies, O’Malley made a proposal to the state last March: Forget the hiring freeze and fill the ag and 4-H agent positions. In exchange, the county will pay a greater share for those positions.

Past practice has been for the state to pay 60 percent of the salaries and benefits of Cooperative Extension agents, with the counties paying 40 percent. O’Malley proposed to reverse those numbers, with the county paying 60 percent and the state paying 40 percent.

In August, five months after making the proposal, O’Malley finally got a response, with Cooperative Extension Dean Karl Martin agreeing to the deal. And it looks as though the La Crosse County Board will sign off on the deal, too. The board’s Executive Committee voted unanimously at a special meeting Monday evening to support a resolution in favor of the proposal.

“This is really a step in the right direction,” said board member Peggy Jerome. “I see it as very good news.”

Board member Tina Wehrs also welcomed the news enthusiastically. “We have lost a bit of our credibility with the agricultural community. I think it’s so important that we build those relationships again,” she said. “They are feeling that we left them hanging and left them out there without dedicated staff to help with their needs. Agriculture is a really, really important part of our economy and our community.”

The county’s proposed budget includes $148,544 for the county’s share of the cost of hiring the two Extension agents. The deal involves the elimination of a 4-H adviser position in the county’s Extension office to cover the county’s extra cost in hiring the Extension educators.

O’Malley said he had hoped to have two new Extension agents hired by now, but it took two months for the state to come up with a job description and posting for the jobs after the initial approval of the proposal. “We are getting some applications so I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to offer someone a position by the end of the year, more likely in January,” O’Malley said.

Shortly after O’Malley submitted his proposal for the Extension agent hirings, the Cooperative Extension system decided not to force counties to share Extension educators in the county clusters. While the county groups would have an area director overseeing them, counties can have their agents work exclusively in-county, although counties would be allowed to create sharing arrangements, according to Craig Saxe, who started in July as the area Extension director serving La Crosse County’s cluster.

“The administration has listened … The counties didn’t want that (sharing arrangement), and a lot of the staff didn’t think that was a good fit,” said Saxe, who served as an Extension ag educator in Juneau County for about 20 years before taking on the area director role.

Saxe also noted that the Extension hiring freeze is being lifted, with approvals in place to seek applicants for a first batch of 20, possibly including a Vernon County ag educator position that has been vacant for three years.

The elimination of the sharing provision in the nEXT Generation plan apparently was not widely known — O’Malley and Green said they hadn’t heard about the state doing away with the sharing requirement.

Other nEXT Generation changes for Cooperative Extension include a new “flat rate” model for cost sharing, which will involve doing away with the percentage cost share between the counties and state system. Instead, counties will pay the state a flat rate for an agent. That will be an advantage for counties who have highly educated and experienced Extension educators, such as Meehan-Strub and Green in La Crosse County, both of whom are considered tenured faculty.

Meehan-Strub won’t be around for long, however. She has been with La Crosse County for 32 years and has been an Extension educator for 41 years, but she’s retiring at the end of the year, enticed by a retirement incentive package that will cut a lot of the tenured faculty out of the Extension system.

New agents hired under the nEXT Generation changes won’t be faculty positions, but “academic staff” posts, which don’t require a master’s degree and don’t carry the kind of job security as a tenured faculty job. O’Malley said that’s going to make it difficult to attract Extension educators of the quality the county has had.

Hiring an experienced Extension agent from another Wisconsin county to come to La Crosse County would involve the new hire giving up tenure — a drawback even when La Crosse County is offering a salary that could go from $65,000 to close to $70,000 for highly qualified applicants.

Although the Extension positions the county will be filling now only require bachelor’s degrees, O’Malley pushed hard to get “master’s degree preferred” included in the job posting in hopes of attracting highly qualified candidates, but the state wouldn’t allow any mention of the salary range.

“I just think they’re depleting the pool of who they could get to come here,” O’Malley said. “We ought to be attractive. We think people should want to come here from across the state.”

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Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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