Marion County Extension Agency explores redistricting

Some big changes could be ahead for the Kansas State Extension office.

Marion County Extension Agent Ricky Roberts updated the Marion County Board of Commissioners on possible changes on the horizon for the Marion County K-State Research and Extension. He met with the board on Monday, Dec. 16.

Roberts explained that Marion County was first approached by Dickinson County in 2010 or 2011 regarding combining the Marion County district and the Dickinson County district. For various reasons, the merger did not happen.

The topic has come up again since various counties around the state have been combining and seeing positive outcomes. Marion County and Dickinson County are again looking at combining their programs together to make a stronger, combined program.

Roberts wanted to meet with the commissioners to talk about the desired changes in order to explain it all and keep everyone up to date.

“We can only combine districts on July 1, so if we want this to happen, we have to do the work before that. We aren’t here to decide anything today. I just want to get a feel of where we are. If it’s a non-starter or if we want to start moving forward,” Roberts said. “I am a proponent of districting. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be here. I want to be up front about that. I hope people walk away feeling like if they have a question, they can call me up with it and I will shoot straight.”

Roberts gave a basic history as well as a projection of the way that the entire state is moving.

He explained that it makes sense, as it allows counties to combine resources and expertise.

He then went on to explain why it would make sense for Marion County to follow the example of many other counties and combine with another similar county.

“I want you to know up front that we are not here because we are desperate. Marion County has been so good to us and supported us well. Same thing with Dickinson County. It’s just that it’s the way we are all headed,” Roberts said. “We are here because we absolutely believe it’s a better extension program than what we have now. The extension is broken down now in that we are about one inch deep and we go about a mile wide. The programs don’t go deep. But combining with Dickinson County would allow us to go deeper.”

He went on to explain that there are four basic areas they are responsible for in which they could go deeper. These areas consist of agriculture, family and consumer sciences, youth development (4-H) and community development. Each of those areas then has their own grouping that need to be covered.

“I have to go through everything we are supposed to cover in one month. That doesn’t give you any time to go into much of any of it,” said Tristan Cope, county extension agent who deals with family and consumer sciences and 4-H development.

Cope and Roberts explained that they are generalists.

“By no means are we specialists. Districting allows you to change that model a bit more. Agents can become more of specialists. For example, if we district with Dickinson County, they have four agents, but now we would have six agents, so we would now have higher quality,” Roberts said.

Both explained that the overall service to the counties would improve.

“Forming a district is not about saving money. Our budgets are people. Eighty-eight percent of appropriation is in people [wages and benefits]. By forming districts, the intent isn’t to cut people, so there isn’t a big amount of savings,” Roberts said.

Districts work when two or more counties agree to combine county extension programs into one extension program serving the entire district. Roberts explained it basically becomes one checkbook as funds are combined.

That district program (Marion and Dickinson Counties) will be governed by a board comprised of four representatives from each county.

The first representatives are appointed by commission boards; thereafter, candidates can file, and public elections are held in November.

PDC members are appointed by governing board and would consist of six or more members from each county.

The district board will have taxing authority to levy taxes sufficient to finance the district.

Roberts then explained how the districting process would need to happen on Marion County’s part to become official.

The current executive boards of Marion would adopt an intent to district.

The board of county commissioners would then approve an intent to district.

Roberts and his staff would begin sharing that intent with shareholders, including PDCs, ag producers, FCE leaders, 4-H leaders and anyone else impacted by the redistricting in an intent to gain public support.

The board and staff representation from each county would then develop an operational agreement, and then that agreement would then be presented to the board of county commissioners.

Once the commissioners agreed to it, the agreement would then need to be published in a local paper twice.

A protest period of 60 days is then allowed following the second publication in the paper.

If no protest, Roberts and his staff will submit the operational agreement to the state attorney general for approval. The new district can then form on July 1.

Roberts explained that the first districting happened in 1994.

“We’ve never seen anyone try to pull out. We’ve never seen a district dissolve, either,” Roberts said.

Roberts explained that the hardest piece of the redistricting that he sees is the 4-H component and figuring out how to run 4-H in two different counties. But it’s also the part that most excites Roberts.

“It’s so hard to recruit volunteers and to have them follow through. But what the redistricting does is open up more possibilities of volunteers since we are broadening it all,” Roberts said.

Cope agreed with him.

“You’re building a better service that’s going to last,” Cope said.

The better service and programming is what both agents emphasized throughout the presentation.

“It will have its hurdles, but it’s about program enhancement and sustainability,” Roberts said.

“The only other downside would be giving up some authority, but that hasn’t been an issue with other districts. We gain so much more,” Roberts said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to keep moving forward with the process and exploring the redistricting of Marion and Dickinson.

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