Finney County commissioners met with officials from K-State Extension offices in Hodgeman and Scott counties on Tuesday to hear a presentation on the benefits of Extension districts.

Extension districts were enabled by state statute in 1991 and allow two or more counties to come together and form an Extension district intended to create more efficient, effective educational programming for each district by pooling personnel and financial resources. Hodgeman County is interested in forming an Extension district with Finney County, and Scott and Pawnee counties are on the fence.

Though no action was taken at the meeting and Finney County Commission Chairman Larry Jones said it would be at least a year before any potential district program starts, the meeting put commissioners in contact with representatives from established districts to inform any decision made on the process.

According to Jim Lindquist, assistant director of K-State Research and Extension, 48 counties have joined 17 statewide Extension districts, and two more counties are slated to join two separate districts on July 1, making 50 of 105 Kansas counties participating in the program.

DeWayne Craighead, a Hodgeman County Extension agent, said Pawnee County expressed interest in forming a district in recent years. But since Hodgeman County issued invitations to Pawnee and Finney counties, no response has come from Pawnee County.

Jones questioned the viability of Pawnee County’s importance to a Finney County district, noting that it is not one of the surrounding counties that support Finney County’s economic growth.

Lindquist said he visited Pawnee County a few months ago, and that the county’s Extension board has been advised to find partners for an extension district.

An extension representative from Scott County said that if the county were to establish a district, it would be with Finney County.

Of the counties that already have formed districts, few have formed them in south-central and southwest Kansas. The closest districts are Walnut Creek and Golden Prairie. Walnut Creek includes Ness, Lane and Rush counties, and Golden Prairie includes Logan, Gove and Trego counties.

Jones noted that counties with highly assessed valuations are not part of Extension districts. Some of those counties include Johnson, Douglas, Riley, Shawnee, Reno and Sedgwick counties.

Lindquist said the largest counties simply have more Extension agents, meaning they already have more leeway to specialize programming. For example, he said, Sedgwick County has funding for 10 agents, while Finney County has funding for three.

He added that Shawnee and Douglas counties almost formed a district, but the deal fell through. However, Lindquist said, Shawnee County commissioners are once again interested in starting talks to form a district.

To form a district, Lindquist said, county Extension boards typically make the decision, choosing which counties they want to partner with. Officials from each county are then tasked with coming together in agreement on the formation of the district.

Lindquist noted that there are exceptions to the rule of who decides to form a district to begin with, but that ultimately both the Extension offices and county commissions must agree. Once that happens, the county commission passes a resolution to form the district.

Citizens have 60 days to protest the decision. If more than 5 percent of qualified electors in the county sign a petition in opposition to the district, it can’t form without a public vote.

According to Lindquist, the first district formed in 1994. Since then, there have been three protest petitions. One was passed in Ness County when the Walnut Creek district formed. However, the public voted 60-40 to establish the district.

Another protest petition was passed in Gove County when the Golden Prairie district was formed. Trego and Logan counties moved forward with the formation of the district, showing that district counties do not have to be contiguous. A year later, Gove County voted 70-30 to join the district.

The third protest was in Lyon County, which was set to join the Frontier District. Lindquist said “city-county rivalries” ultimately kept the county from joining the district.

As for district budgets, Lindquist said, the first annual budget is determined by the operating budgets of each county, which are merged when the district is formed. The following year, the district board creates a budget for the next fiscal year.

After the budget is made, a public hearing is held and then a final decision is made. If the budget passes, it gets sent to the county clerk of the county with the highest assessed valuation. The budgets are funded by local taxes.

There is no mill levy cap for the budget, but the budget is also exempt from the tax lid, meaning local funding isn’t hampered by stringent limitations. The former mill levy cap of 2.5 mills was removed in 1999, but most districts have a mill levy below 2.5.

“It’s a separate tax. It’s a separate entity,” Lindquist said.

Furthermore, savings can be achieved by staffing agents below the maximum allowed by K-State Extension, which funds districts by default for the maximum of their allotted agents. If a district receives funding for six agents, those counties can save money by hiring four.

“It’s the district governing body that agrees what is the level of staffing that makes the most sense for us,” Lindquist said. “That’s the grassroots tradition of Kansas. The local folks decide what that is.”

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.