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By Tristan 

Blaine commissioners rethinking plan to cut extension position

 


Blaine County Commissioners wanted to hear what the public thought about their recent decision to not hire a new agricultural extension agent. They heard.

Havre Daily News/Zach White

A crowd gathers in the Blaine County Commissioners meeting room on Tuesday to protest the proposed elimination of the extension agent's position.

During a hearing in the commissioner's office Tuesday, more than two dozen Blaine County residents filled the room –– a few had to stand for lack of chairs –– to express one view, Blaine County needs an extension agent and the residents are willing to do what it takes to make that happen.

Commission Chair Vic Miller began the meeting by explaining how difficult their decision had been.

"There are some things that cause you to sleep less," Miller said. "At 2 o'clock this morning, this was one of them."

Mike Schuldt, the former Blaine County extension agent who recently left for a position in Miles City, made a chart that showing the financial concerns behind the commission's decision that made its way through the crowd.

Basically, every year since 2006, the revenue coming into the department has been less than the money spent on the program by the county government, even though the department's spending was always lower than expected.

The commissioners didn't want to just raise taxes to pay for that deficit, especially after hearing from a few Blaine County residents who didn't think the program is worth the cost.

Those residents were not at the meeting.

Chinook resident Linda Ortner asked the commissioners how much taxes would have to raised to keep the extension agent position.

After some number crunching, the commissioners determined that property taxes would go up about $6.50 per $100,000 of property value.

The consensus in the room was that that is worth it.

Cheryl Schuldt, Mike's wife, told the commissioners about her husband's dedication to his work and the county's farmers.

"Extension office work does not just happen from 8 to 5, or just in the extension office," Schuldt said. "I cannot count the number of calls he's gladly accepted at home. And the answers were given promptly, unlike some county employees who refuse to talk about county business after 5 p.m."

After applause for Schuldt died down, Democratic state Senate candidate Greg Jergeson said he sympathized with the commissioners.

While the initial agreement for the extension office program divided payment evenly between local, state and federal governments, Jergeson said the obligations at the higher two levels has faltered.

"The state legislature has frequently reduced your tax base in the county when giving special interests tax breaks," Jergeson said. "Someone has to expect that the representatives you send to state and federal governments represent your interests."

Miller agreed, complaining about recent legislative action that requires local taxes for state easements.

"I'm going to have to take a chunk of that (county taxes) and pay that to the state of Montana, in all its infinite wisdom," Miller said.

Following closing statements from the comissioners, they agreed to take the input into consideration during budget talks over the summer, when they will also take additional public comment.

 

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