April 04, 2002 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

When the Oregon Legislature finished a second special session in February and tried to deal with a state budget deficit, it looked like the Union County Extension Service, the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station and the Extension forestry office were going to have to tighten their belts.

But that was at least doable.

Then Gov. John Kitzhaber put forth his solution to the budget shortfall.

In his scenario, the Extension Service, the ag research stations and the Extension forester programs would be cut 25 percent for the 2001-03 biennium.

Since the first year of the biennium finishes at the end of June, the cut would effectively mean a 50 percent reduction for the remaining year.

That has left Extension agents and foresters throughout Oregon worried.

The Union County Extension Office in Island City, where one crop agent, Darrin Walenta, serves growers in three counties and a family and consumer education agent already is missing, is awaiting a final decision.

Decisions (about staff and office cuts) will be made on the Oregon State University campus, said 4-H Agent Carole Smith.

At this point, weve been told we go on and deliver the best programs we can deliver. But just go on, Smith said.

Extension personnel are awaiting the decision as legislators and the governor disagree on how to solve a budget shortfall.

No one, OSU or the governor, is asking how one Extension office almost 300 miles from Salem will survive, said Smith, who is going about her business, working this week on another annual office budget that even without statewide cuts is giving her trouble.

Everythings gone up, Smith noted. Our budget is really shrinking, just as it is.

John Coney, a spokesman for Kitzhaber, said Thursday that the governor would like like heck to prevent the cuts that are ahead for statewide services. The governors office wanted to raise

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revenues, Coney said, but the Republicans refused.

Asked specifically about cutting 50 percent of the Extension Services budget, Coney admitted that Extension would get hit hard.

But budgeting is an exercise in priorities, he said. Its unfortunate, but thats what budget cutting is like.

But why this cut, here?

Its indefensible, Coney replied. Its tough, but theres nothing to be done.

The Extension agents are being told to wait until a probable third special legislative session occurs in June. And there are court cases starting between the Legislature and the governor.

Back in Island City, life goes on. Agent Walenta is planning the annual crops tour for June 18. He and

4-H agent Smith are working on arrangements for the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and the Union County Fair. A direct seeding workshop will go forward this afternoon. The calendar keeps advancing.

But fears are out there.

Smith looks at what could happen, all the way to closing some Extension offices.

It would just devastate the program, she said. I dont know how wed


Smith isnt sure people realize what a resource Extension provides in many areas.

Its easy to take for granted, she admits. but its hard to get it back if it goes away.

According to state figures, Extension ag programs reached more than 372,000 Oregonians last year, while nutrition programs reached 190,000 Oregonians. The Union County Extension service had 5,736 contacts about agriculture last year, 53,181 contacts about 4-H, 2,378 contacts about forestry and 1,050 contacts about the master gardener program.

While Extension agents are warning that no programs will be held sacred in cutbacks, they are saying the best way to help is to let the governor and legislators know what Extension means locally by writing a letter.

Addresses are available at the Extension office on McAlister Road.

Local legislators, Smith added, have been supportive of the Extension


That draws a shallow smile from Smith and another thought about the future. We just dont know.

Coney, at Kitzhabers office, didnt say much more.

Theres no easy or pleasant way to explain this. We wish there was some magic way to restore this.

Reach T.L. Petersen at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it