Barton County will be part of a joint extension district with Ellis County following action by the Barton County Commission Monday morning.
Barton County Commission Chairman Jennifer Schartz signed the agreement Monday. This follows chairpersons of both county extension boards and the chairman of the Ellis County Commission doing the same.
It will now go to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office for final approval.
“We should be meeting our time line of July 1 to have this in place,” said Natalie Fullerton, Barton County/KSU Extension Council president. The new venture will be dubbed the Cottonwood District.
A resolution was adopted by the commission last November stating it was the commission’s “intent to approve an agreement.” As there was no public protest as a result of that resolution, the merger is going forward.
Under the proposed agreement, operations will continue in each county with the extension district receiving funding from K-State Research and Extension and a dedicated mill levy limit of 1.5 mills at the county level.
“I think this is such a positive move for Barton County Extension,” said Commissioner Alicia Straub, who was a strong advocate for the plan. It will allow for more diverse sustainable and economical programming.
“It was not without reservation that I moved forward with this,” Schartz said. She hopes it lives up to expectations.
Why a joint district?
Calling it a preemptive strike against potential state-forced consolidation, the Barton County Commission in November gave its blessing for the proposal to move forward.
For some time, the Barton County Extension Council has explored joining with Ellis County, Fullerton said. But first, the commissions in both counties had to approve both a resolution supporting the venture and the actual service agreement.
Next, the boards of the two councils had to meet and iron out the details.
The resolution was published twice in the newspaper as a legal notice. This was followed by a 60-day public protest period.
Should a petition opposing the measure gathered signatures of 5 percent of the eligible voters in Barton County, the matter would have to be put on a ballot for a public election. But, there was no opposition.
What is a joint extension district?
According to Fullerton, an extension district is a separate taxing entity that would set its own mill levy and be governed by a board elected by county residents. In this case, there would be four board members elected from each of the two counties which would set the budget and tax rate.
For this first year, the existing budget would remain in affect. For Barton County, that was $215,000, or about .78 mills.
The district will have a maximum mill authority of 1.5 mills, but it would likely be lower.
Under the existing budgets, for every 75 cents Barton County spends on extension, Ellis County spends $1.12.
There was concern expressed in November from some on the commission and some in the meeting audience over what was seen as a tax increase.
The state law allowing these districts was passed in 1991. Now, 45 of Kansas’ 105 counties fall under one of 16 districts.
Currently, county extension budgets are approved by the county commissioners and funded through the general fund. Barton County’s council receives about $200,000 annually.
With the change, existing staff would continue to maintain offices in their local counties, and would provide educational programming in both counties. Residents would also have access to additional agents and each county would continue to have its own county fair.
Each county would be represented by four district governing board members, all of whom are elected by county residents. Each county within the district has program development committees that advise extension agents in the development of programs.
The new joint council will be official July 1. At that time, interim board members would be appointed to serve until the first election is held (four of whom would be appointed by the Barton County Commission).
The eight board members would eventually be elected for staggered terms in November of odd-numbered years.
Commissioners have said Ellis and Barton counties are natural partners. The two have similar populations and tax bases, so they would be able to share the load equally, unlike could be the case with other surrounding, smaller, counties.