December 22, 2014

Elyria
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4-Hers worry about program loss if sales tax fails

ELYRIA — Lorain County’s 4-H program could feel the budget ax if the 0.25 percent sales tax increase proposed by the county commissioners fails to win the support of voters in November.

Jessica Robenolt, 19, of Oberlin, poses with her Arabian horse Snickers on Wednesday. (CT photo by Chuck Humel.)

Jessica Robenolt, 19, of Oberlin, poses with her Arabian horse Snickers on Wednesday. (CT photo by Chuck Humel.)

The commissioners agreed Wednesday to a list of about $2.1 million worth of cuts that would be imposed on county government if the sales tax hike is shot down. The list included completely eliminating the $86,400 the commissioners have given to The Ohio State University Extension Office, which runs the county’s 4-H program, for the past two years.

Without that money, extension Director Linnette Goard warned, the office won’t be able to get state or federal matching funds and would have to close. With it would also close the 4-H program, which has more than 2,000 members involved in 86 clubs in the county. The extension office has a budget this year of nearly $287,000.

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“If the OSU Extension closes, 4-H is gone, and all extension services are gone,” Goard said.

Even if the Lorain County extension office were to merge with another county, most likely Medina, Goard said the commissioners would still need to contribute money. She also said that the extension has taken a proactive approach to possible budget problems and is laying off three employees.

The possibility of losing 4-H, which is heavily involved in the Lorain County Fair, doesn’t sit well with 16-year-old Kayla Mackey of Kipton, who is a member of two 4-H clubs that she credits with teaching her skills ranging from leadership to how to care for her rabbits and goats.

She said 4-H programs are in trouble all over the state because of budget cuts.

“I can’t see my life without 4-H,” Kayla said. “I understand that the county is going down, but so is everything else. We are one of the few counties that still has 4-H, and a lot of us are barely holding on.”

Commissioner Ted Kalo, who put forth the list of possible cuts, said he’s a longtime supporter of 4-H and isn’t happy about the cuts he had to propose, but the extension office isn’t a service that county government is mandated to provide.
“We don’t have the revenue,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of discretionary funding.”

Brenda Lea Teeters, one of the 376 adult 4-H volunteers in the county, said losing the extension office and 4-H would be great loss for the county, but she also hopes the possibility spurs voters to vote for the sales tax.

“I don’t think it’s a scare tactic, we’ve all felt the pinch,” Teeters said.

Commissioner Tom Williams, who has pushed for deeper cuts than Kalo proposed, said he wasn’t particularly pleased with the prospect of eliminating the county’s OSU extension office. He said he’d rather see the funding cut elsewhere in county government, possibly from county Auditor Mark Stewart’s budget, which would already be cut by $200,000 under Kalo’s proposal if the sales tax fails.

“We may have to make a cut, but I don’t want to lose federal funding, and I don’t want to lose 4-H,” Williams said. “But times are tough.”

Commissioner Lori Kokoski said she was a member of 4-H when she was growing up and she hopes that the program can survive. There’s always the possibility that the proposed cut to the extension office won’t need to be as severe, she said.
“The budget is a living document, so it’s something that can be changed,” she said.

Kalo’s proposal listed more than $2.1 million in cuts, although it also noted that another $372,600 worth of cuts will likely still need to be made if the tax increase fails.

If the full $2.5 million worth of cuts Kalo’s proposal said were necessary — which also included slashing the county’s contribution to Lorain County Transit from $100,000 to $50,000 — were imposed in the event the tax increase fails, they would allow the county to survive through 2012, but it would also mean there would be no carryover into 2013.

Williams said he believes additional cuts will be necessary or the county will be looking at an additional $12 million in budget reductions when 2013 arrives. Cuts will still be necessary if the sales tax passes, he said.

“I’m on board saying that the $2.5 million should balance our budget for 2012, but it doesn’t solve our problems,” he said.

The proposal would also see the county jail, which has an annual budget of nearly $12 million lose $350,000 if the tax hike fails. The jail is funded through a dedicated sales tax that generates around $7.5 million annually and the commissioners contribute the extra money.

Sheriff Phil Stammitti, who has avoided reductions to his law enforcement budget in the most recent cuts, said he doesn’t like the prospect of running the jail with less money. He said he’s already short staffed and doing everything he can to keep costs under control.

The commissioners need to find a better way to deal with the budget gap than just cutting, Stammitti said.

“It’s their job to come up with the funds so elected officials can run their offices,” Stammitti said.

County Prosecutor Dennis Will, who will see his budget cut $200,000 under Kalo’s proposal, said losing that kind of money will mean his office will take even longer to get work done. Some things might not get done at all, he said.

“There’s nowhere to absorb it,” Will said. “It’s going to be a reduction in personnel.”

The biggest potential cut under the proposal would be to the county’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judges, who would lose the $648,000 they use to fund the Pathways and Turning Point facilities.

Those facilities are among the few places the commissioners are able to cut in the court system because of orders from the county’s judges requiring the commissioners to fund their operations at a certain level.

Juvenile Court Administrator Doug Messer said both Pathways and Turning Point provide valuable and necessary services for the county’s children.

“We are very hopeful the citizens of Lorain County will see their way to pass the sales tax to avoid that catastrophic loss,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.